5 US Festivals You've Never Heard Of

Article by: Andrew Owen

Thu February 13, 2014 | 00:00 AM

Growing up, I used to imagine living the life of a National Geographic photographer. In 2009, I was one. With my close friend Ross McDermott and a grant from the National Geographic Young Explorers Program, we set out on a photographic expedition called “The American Festivals Project.” Our aim was to discover and document America’s small, hidden,and bizarre festivals. We wanted to show a side of America most people had never seen before. In the process we also sought to capture the last vestiges of American subcultures that we feared were on the brink of being lost forever. Read more about the AFP.



Location: Helvetia, West Virginia

If the mission of the AFP was to find those unique rituals and celebrations far off the beaten path, then we struck gold at Fasnacht in the tiny town of Helvetia, WV (population 59). On the Saturday night before Lent, the town’s denizens embrace their Swiss-German ancestry by parading through town holding painted lanterns and wearing elaborate homemade masks. Next, everyone enters the town hall and dances in a big circle surrounding Old Man Winter hanging from the ceiling in effigy. When the clock strikes midnight, Old Man Winter is snatched from his perch and dragged onto a giant bonfire in the hopes that the cold West Virginia winter will melt away for the remainder of the season. Read more about Fasnacht.


Faquetigue Mardi Gras Courir

Location: (near) Eunice, Louisiana

Have you ever chased a chicken tossed off a rooftop with 300 people who are wearing homemade pajamas? Have you ever danced past a crawfish farm on a wagon full of masked musicians playing creole fiddle tunes? If you have, then you know the magic of Fat Tuesday on the cajun prairie. Far from the beads, beer, and debauchery of Bourbon Street, this celebration speaks to the original spirit of Mardi Gras where revelers dance from house to house begging for chickens, pigs, and any other food to add to a community gumbo feast. Read more about Faquetigue.


Speed Week

Location: Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah

For most of us, topping the 100mph marker on the speedometer is beyond exhilarating. But for land speed racers who gather every year “to shoot the salt”, that’s barely crawling speed. On the dried edges of the Great Salt Lake in western Utah, hot rods, roadsters, belly tankers, lakesters, motorcycles, streamliners, and even diesel trucks all compete here for their place in land speed racing history. Spectators are welcome, but this is no car show. Focus is paramount as racing teams tinker, adjust, and strategize to reach death-defying speeds. Read more about Speed Week.


Okie Noodling

Location: Pauls Valley, Oklahoma

We all know the phrase “teach a man to fish and you will feed him for a lifetime.” But does that apply to handfishing too? Could you live off what you catch from balling your hand into a fist, shoving it in fish den 5 feet below the water’s surface, and yanking up a toothless aquagiant? Maybe...but at the Okie Noodling Festival, talk of survival isn’t about going hungry; it’s about knowing the difference between a prize catch and a beaver tail. “No hooks. No bait. No fear.” is the noodler credo and you will see your fair share of scratches, scars, and snakebite marks. As one old-timer told me, “once you ‘get bit’, you’ll never go back to your reel and tackle box again.” Read more about Okie Noodling.


Oglala Lakota Nation Powwow

Location: Pine Ridge, South Dakota

Every festival has a story, and every festival has an origin. Nowhere was this more clearly celebrated than in Pine Ridge, SD where Lakota tribes from the western states gathered to dance, drum, and display their native traditions. For many dancers, however, it’s a way of life and a profession. Competing on the powwow circuit is strenuous work that requires hours of continuous performance and constant travel for much of the year. Even still, at the heart of each competition is the connection to the past and to the ancestors that passed along the stories and folkways that are fundamental to the Lakota way of life. Read more about the Pine Ridge Powwow.


Words & images by Andrew Owen

Andrew Owen is based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Currently, he works at Instagram leading community events programs that inspire people to shoot photos and videos and build real-world connections. Previously, Andrew was the Managing Director of the LOOK3 Festival of the Photograph in Charlottesville, Virginia.