The powwow is a homecoming for my tribe’s members to honor our culture and heritage and, as my mom says, to remember “where you came from and who you are.” Traditional singing and dancing is a big part of the celebration.
We’ve taken our girls — Charlotte, 5, whom we call C.C., and Jessie, who is 3 years old, since they were babies. But this year there was a difference — barely noticeable to others but significant to me and my family.
For the first time, I thought, our daughters were beginning to understand and appreciate their culture and where our people came from. This is important, because American Indians are so often simply forgotten. My husband is white, and my girls have lighter skin than mine. I’ve had people ask me if I was their nanny. When I say I’m their mom and I’m American Indian, they sometimes look bewildered.
Growing up as a kid in the D.C. suburbs, my sister and I made the same annual trip to Hollister, driving five hours down I-95 with our parents. When I explained to my friends that I was going to my tribe’s powwow, I’d mostly get confused looks or stares. A real live Indian? Yes, a real, live modern American Indian. Sometimes friends and teachers would try to correct me and say, “Oh, you mean you’re from India.”
No, American Indian, I’d say. My people are from this country.
My parents left Hollister when they were young adults, mainly because there weren’t — and still aren’t — many jobs in the small town, about an hour and a half northeast of Raleigh, near the Virginia line. They eventually settled in Maryland, but they always had one foot back in Hollister.
Although the Washington region is racially and ethnically diverse, I am amazed at how many people are so surprised when I tell them I am American Indian and a member of the Haliwa-Saponi tribe. “Never heard of it,” most people say, because generally people are more familiar with the big, well-known tribes like Navajo and Cherokee.
There are more than 500 tribes in the United States. Mine is best described as being an amalgamated group that descends from the Saponi, Nansemond and Tuscarora and traces its roots back to the late 1600s. The name Haliwa-Saponi comes from the Saponi tribe and Haliwa is a combination of Halifax and Warren counties in North Carolina.
The abbreviated tribal history is that over centuries the tribe became smaller and consolidated with other tribes. It faced war with Iroquois from New York, disease and clashes with colonial white traders who tried to take their land. The tribe eventually settled in northeastern North Carolina, in an area known as “The Meadows,” for the fields and forests surrounding it. My tribe wasn’t directly impacted by the Trail of Tears that forced American Indians from their homelands in the Southeastern United States. We were too small and didn’t own enough land to pose much of a threat.
In 1965, leaders of our tribe pushed and received formal recognition from the state of North Carolina as an American Indian tribe, a designation for which the tribe had fought for centuries. It means that the state officially acknowledges my tribe’s chief and council, which serve similarly as a state government on some fronts. You must be enrolled by the tribe to be called a member. Currently our tribe has about 4,000 members, and many of us carry an enrollment card much like a driver’s license. And no, we don’t have a casino or a reservation.
Haliwa-Saponis are among the three largest tribes in North Carolina, including the Lumbees and the Eastern Band of Cherokees.
Marvin Richardson, one of our tribal leaders, calls a powwow “a celebration of our identity” as American Indians.
Our powwow, which also commemorates our becoming a state-recognized tribe, usually lasts three days, with Saturday being the highlight. The focal point is a grassy arena where traditional Indian dances are performed. The powwow is open to the public and draws roughly 8,000 people over the three-day event. This year, ours drew an especially large crowd because we had a celebrity on hand: Brooke Simpson, a member of our tribe who last season was a finalist on the television show “The Voice.”
Indians spend months planning for a powwow. In addition to the dance steps, there’s the regalia (please don’t call it a costume) that performers wear based on the type of dance they will be doing. The regalia is handmade, involving detailed beadwork, feather bustles and carefully stitched materials. People take great pride in making it and wearing it.
This year, our kids and I, along with my mom, had started preparing for the powwow right after Christmas. For months, our kids had learned and practiced with me and my cousin from Richmond, an experienced, prize-winning dancer, for their “jingle dress” dance. A jingle dress has several rows of metal cones that tinkle when the dancer moves. It has its origins from the Ojibwa tribes and is said to be a healing dress for those who are sick. Young girls especially like the jingle dress dance, because it is lively and because of the sound the dress makes.
As they performed the dance at the powwow last month, my girls not only looked as if they were having fun, they also looked comfortable amid the rhythmic singing, drumming and dancing, in the grassy arena surrounded by fields of cotton and pine trees. Our youngest placed her hands on her hips, felt the drum beat and pranced her steps — only occasionally looking over at me to give a thumbs-up. Her steps weren’t perfect, but she was full of heart. Our oldest at one point held her head back feeling the sun and breeze on her face but still concentrating on her steps as she danced around the arena with other girls her age.
My girls powwowed! (Yes, Indians use it as a verb.)
Watching them embrace and enjoy their roots, I felt that we had established a foundation that I hope they won’t forget and be afraid to share and educate others about.
Granted, my 3-year-old’s teachers didn’t understand what she was saying when she tried to tell them about going to the powwow. They thought she was saying “potty.” But once I explained to them what she was saying, and they saw her smile and nod her head, they enthusiastically encouraged her. Since returning from Hollister, she’s tried to teach all the kids on the playground how to powwow dance.
I couldn’t help but chuckle when my older daughter, C.C., recently explained to one of her friends after school why she had been absent for a few days. She told her, “I’ve been powwowing.”
“You’ve been what?” asked the classmate.
“Powwowing,” she repeated. “Don’t you know what a powwow is?” Her friend paused quietly.
C.C. proceeded to explain, “It’s when you go and be with all the people from your tribe and you celebrate who you are.”
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