Olivia Richardson is an aunt, accountant, and dog lover who works for a construction company in Raleigh. But she’s also someone else—a Native American.
Richardson, a member of the Haliwa-Saponi Tribe, hails from Hollister in Halifax County, where she grew up learning about her tribe’s culture, language, and artistic traditions. In Raleigh, Richardson often feels like she’s “walking in two worlds,” she says.
“Being in a city setting that’s not close to a tribe, you have to be able to find ways to continue to [be in touch with your heritage],” Richardson says. “You want to be able to live what we call ‘American life’ as well as hold on to your Indigenous ways and traditions.”
That feeling of living a double life is common for Native Americans, says Christina Theodorou, a member of the Lumbee Tribe. For her, going home means seeing her family but also getting back in touch with her tribal roots.
“When you are from a tribal community, you kind of live in two worlds,” she says. “You live and you function and you work your day-to-day … but you have to go home to have that cultural [connection]. You have to spend a lot of time on the road to get that boost of energy and good medicine that comes from going to a tribal powwow.”
Sandon Jacobs, a member of the Waccamaw Siouan, says living in Raleigh can sometimes be challenging.
“We’re so spread out,” he says. “When you go around the Lumbee community in Pembroke, Native folks are together. They live down the road from one another, [they] go to church together on the weekends.
“Raising a family here is a lot different. I do miss that experience for my kids, being immersed [in Native culture]. It’s nice to be around people who have your lived experience.”
Jacobs and the 168,000 other Native Americans who live in North Carolina will have the chance to come together Saturday at Raleigh’s Inter-Tribal Pow Wow at Dorothea Dix Park, the first funded by the city. Raleigh officials’ decision to literally invest in the Indigenous community means a lot, says Richardson.
“They’ve taken it upon themselves to acknowledge that there were Indigenous people who lived here [in Dix Park],” she says. “[They’re saying], ‘We want to take the time to appreciate you. To allow people to witness you.’”
In Raleigh, powwows at local colleges are regular but relatively small events. There have been attempts to start a large annual powwow at the NC State Fairgrounds, but they’ve faltered due to lack of funding, says Jacobs. This event feels different, like “the start of something lasting,” he says.
In the past few years, recognition of Native American communities has increased. In 2018, Governor Roy Cooper turned Columbus Day—once a celebration of Christopher Columbus, who led the conquest and extermination of hundreds of Native Americans upon landing in South America—into Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Recently, local officials have also acknowledged land in the state that once belonged to Native American people.
Policy changes like these and cultural programs like the Dix Park Pow Wow should be “conversation starters,” Jacobs says.
“As the Native people living here, it’s up to us to make ourselves seen,” he says. “To show up in the community, in our schools and our workplaces and our politics …. To make sure that the history of the Indigenous people in this state isn’t just glossed over in a couple of pages in your fourth-grade textbook.”
North Carolina has one of the largest Indigenous populations in the United States—with eight tribes and four urban Indian organizations—but many think of Native American culture as extinct, Theodorou says.
“Our presence truly hasn’t been known,” she says. “There’s not really been an acknowledgment of Indigenous culture in the Triangle.”
That’s partly because there is not a tribe specifically anchored in the Triangle, she says. The closest community is the Occaneechi Tribe in Hillsborough.
Powwows help the wider population understand that Native American communities are alive and well, Theodorou says. Moreover, they educate people about Native American culture. The Dix Park Pow Wow is an exciting and “emotional” event, Theodorou says, but it’s also an opportunity to reduce the stigma and stereotypes associated with Native American communities.
“When you are an Indian who lives in a city, an urban setting, oftentimes you’re one of the only Indians that is in your school or your job. You’re constantly asked questions that are offensive or ignorant,” Theodorou says. “We need to have frank, open, and honest conversations about what people don’t know about tribal cultures here.”
Powwows are a time to come together, says Trey Roberts, community engagement manager for the Dix Park Conservancy and a member of the Haliwa-Saponi Tribe.
“It’s a moment for us to celebrate our culture. Up to 1940 or 1950, it was illegal for us to even dance,” Roberts says. “Powwows are an opportunity to gather and dance and celebrate what we’re proud of, our artistry and our culture and the things that have been passed down to us.”
The all-day celebration will include dancing, drumming, and singing, with performances by former Miss Lumbee Alexis Raeana and singer-songwriter Charly Lowry.
Jacobs, a singer and emcee, will perform with the Stoney Creek Singers, he says. Their higher-pitched style of singing comes from the Northern Plains area, around the Great Lakes, he says. He and other members of Stoney Creek will be singing in the Tutelo-Saponi language.
Richardson, meanwhile, is one of the lead dancers for the powwow alongside Patrick Green. She’ll perform the “jingle dance,” a healing dance that originated in the West. In the story she was told, the dance healed a young Native girl who was very sick, she says. The girl’s grandfather saw the dance and the dresses worn by dancers in a vision.
The story is told in many different ways, but that’s the version Richardson carries with her, she says. Every time she dances, she tries to think of someone who is in need of healing.
“I always take the time to pray for someone who might be sick. I pray for someone who went through the loss of a family member. I pray for someone that’s going through depression,” she says.
“The dresses are heavy, but when you’re wearing them, the weight tends to distribute across your entire body. As I’m dancing, I try to think of that weight as someone’s hurt or someone’s sickness that they’re going through. I carry that on myself, just enduring it, and helping them endure it as well.”
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