HAMMOND — Vibrating tribal drums, rattles and piercing war whoops caught the attention — and interest — of the crowd gathered July 10 at the Tangipahoa Parish Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, as Native American historian Tom “Strong Buffalo” Varnado talked about the traditions of growing up as a Native American.
“I learned to hunt, fish, grow my own food and (make) numerous homeopathic, medicinal remedies from my family,” Varnado said. “They spoke often about our history and the valuable respect for nature our ancestors have handed down as our inheritance.”
Varnado, 76, is on a mission to teach others about the contributions Native Americans have made to the United States.
“It quickly became clear to me using the term Indian (which Varnado used throughout his presentation) was OK, despite the objections of some tribal factions,” he said. “Most of us have no problem with the political correctness of it. The name was given to the Native Americans by a very young explorer named Columbus that never set foot on the continental United States.”
Varnado began a search for artifacts years ago as a way to connect with his Native American heritage, he said.
A Walker resident, Varnado is part Choctaw and Cherokee and works full time to bring information about Native American customs, artifacts and replicas of the various tribes to students and groups. His presentation is hands-on and focuses on an interactive, three-dimensional approach to learning, he said.
“Many exhibits that are visited are protected by glass,” Varnado said. “We wanted to create a hands-on experience for our visitors.”
Varnado encourages his audiences to handle his collection of relics, said Carla Tate, executive director of the Tangipahoa Parish Convention and Visitor’s Bureau. “Education through experience is top priority. Strong Buffalo also makes an effort to speak with all attendees and answers questions following his presentation.”
This year’s event at the Tangipahoa Parish Convention and Visitor’s Bureau marked the fourth time Varnado brought his presentation about Native Americans to the Tangipahoa community, exhibit organizer Dara Short said.
“Years ago, longtime Tangipahoa Parish Convention and Visitor’s Bureau’s Executive Director Betty Stewart discovered Varnado and created this opportunity for everyone to discover local and Louisiana Native American history,” Short said.
“We had heard Mr. Varnado would give a very interesting and informative presentation on local Native American lore but had no idea it would be this wonderful,” said Linda Taranto, of Ponchatoula, a member of the Red Hat Ladies.
Varnado told attendees that many of the items Americans use daily — such as toys, purses, musical instruments, environmental home energy-efficiency concepts and food preservation methods — were first developed by Native Americans. Native Americans also were the first recyclers, Varnado said.
“We do not want to waste anything,” he said. “There is way too much waste in our world today.”
“Our love for the spirituality of Mother Earth demanded we utilized what she provides and nothing more,” he said.
While his passion for his past was evident Thursday, Varnado said he wasn’t always interested in his heritage and despised history when he was in school. Varnado said it wasn’t until he was an adult that he realized the importance of his family’s bloodline.
“I had the opportunity of a living history staring me in the face all along,” Varnado said. “Once I was old enough to understand the things my family had been telling me, I began to research, dig deeper and explore the tales and myths of my family and other tribes.”
Joy Talbot traveled from Madisonville with her grandson, Phillip Byrd, 8, in hopes of spending time with him and “expose him to this culture while enjoying learning history.”
With his face painted like a Native American, Phillip ran around the center playing with old-world toys, pounding on the drums and darting in and out of the teepee with the other kids in attendance.
Volunteers from the Louisiana Children’s Discovery Center supervised games and painted faces.
“What kid doesn’t love cowboys and Indians?” Varnado asked. “This is an opportunity to teach them about the past and to increase their awareness about protecting the future.”
There are four federally recognized tribes in the state and nine state-sanctioned tribes, he said.
The Native American exhibit will continue at 10 a.m. and 11 a.m. July 17 at the Tangipahoa Parish Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, 13143 Wardline Road, Hammond. For information, contact (800) 542-7520 or www.tangitourism.com.