By Zoe van Buren
With Patrick Suarez, Matthew Yockonhawken Nickens, and Sandra Davidson
Powwow morning was perfect in Ahoskie. It was early October, and the first chill of autumn was in the air—not a chance of rain. As the overcast morning gave way to blue skies above the Meherrin Tribal Grounds—set between the Bells Branch of the Potecasi Creek and Highway 11 as it stretches from Ahoskie to Murfreesboro—Patrick Suarez and Matthew Yockonhawken Nickens were setting up the thirty-second annual Meherrin Indian Nation Powwow.
But the powwow grounds were empty. The perfect forecast did not matter. This year, Meherrin Powwow was nowhere. And yet it existed everywhere.
When COVID-19 cases first began appearing in North Carolina in March 2020, the state’s powwow season had only just begun. On February 29, the Carolina Indian Circle held its thirty-third annual intertribal powwow in the Fetzer Gym at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The first of the eight state-recognized tribal powwows scheduled that spring was to have been the fifty-fifth annual Haliwa-Saponi Blooming of the Dogwood Powwow. By mid-April it was clear that there would be no spring powwows, and perhaps none in the summer, either. As the months passed, American Indian communities across North Carolina faced the prospect of an entire powwow season shut down by the pandemic.
Losing powwow took a spiritual toll. “I actually got physically ill. It felt like I was pregnant but couldn’t give birth,” recalled Kay Oxendine, who was slated to be the first female emcee for the Haliwa-Saponi powwow that spring. She noticed members of the Haliwa-Saponi Tribal Council taking to Facebook to encourage tribal members to observe the traditions of powwow virtually—posting videos of themselves in regalia, lighting ceremonial fires, and blessing the tribal grounds. “It really helped me heal a lot,” Kay said. She danced alone at home to Otis Redding at a virtual powwow afterparty held over Zoom.
By the end of the summer, the Lumbee Tribe had canceled their powwow, annual Homecoming event, and the spring ceremonies in which prayers are offered for the tribe’s well-being. Kevin Chavis, 26, of Lumberton told the News & Observer: “So, when something is canceled, it does kind of do something in the inside of us. Without our songs and dances, without our language, you know, who are we?”
In the small community of the Meherrin Indian Nation, Patrick Suarez and Matthew Nickens Yockonhawken knew their October powwow was destined to be canceled, as well. Though they are both enrolled members of the Meherrin tribe, they live across the country from one another—Patrick in North Carolina and Matthew, with his Navajo wife, in New Mexico. They were already used to holding their far-flung community intact remotely, but powwow was always the time to bring the tribe together. Patrick, the tribe’s powwow coordinator, could not let the year pass without it, but to hold an in-person event and risk the health of their elders and guests was unthinkable. He reached out to Matthew with an idea. What if the entirety of powwow could be done remotely? Perhaps they could find a way to do it all, online.
Powwow is the time to gather. Unlike closed ceremonial events that most American Indian tribes host throughout the year, powwows are open to the public. Defined by exuberant displays of indigenous identity and moments of intertribal connectivity and intratribal reunion, powwows may be either “traditional” or “contest” events, the latter featuring judged and prized competitions for dance and music. The powwow format widely adopted today was developed in the early twentieth century from song and dance traditions practiced at gatherings of Plains nations in Montana, South Dakota, Oklahoma, and New Mexico. As World War II and industrialization disrupted rural community life and the Indian rights movements of the 1960s spurred cultural revitalization, tribes across the country began to adopt the powwow for themselves.
In North Carolina, many American Indian communities were simultaneously fighting for their culture and their community life in the wake of desegregation, which caused the closure of Indian schools where tribal identity was reinforced. When the Haliwa-Saponi received state recognition, in 1965, Chief W. R. Richardson organized the first powwow in North Carolina in honor of the recognition. By the 1970s, the Lumbee had established a powwow in Pembroke. Powwow served the needs of Native Carolinians by strengthening and renewing tribal culture and forging continuity and community relationships through a time of traumatic social disruption.
Although the powwow structure consolidated into its current form as recently as the 1940s, certain dances and songs performed and regalia displayed at powwow are understood as ancient. But if a song or dance is not, in fact, so old at all, the spirit and values conveyed within it are. The new and the old are always present at a powwow. In his 2001 article “Powwows and Identity on the Piedmont and Coastal Plains of North Carolina,” musicologist Chris Goertzen found that in contrast to other revivals of North Carolina’s traditional cultures such as the resurgence of old-time fiddle, in which “the letter of the past” is preserved in historically precise performances of old tunes played “for very new reasons… Music and dance that is not native to North Carolina, and rather young in many details, embodies ideology with local and ancient roots. New music and dance is performed for very old reasons.”
Intertribal exchange is deeply embedded in powwow. The presence in one community’s powwow of another community’s traditions is to be expected, because the development of powwow over the years has been a process, as Goertzen describes it, of “giving and accepting.” But a powwow is not a standardized, ready-made format copied from one place to another. It reflects both the cultural and political relationships of its hosting community and their unique histories and traditions, both intertribal and “community-specific many times over.”
Today there are eight state-recognized tribes in North Carolina: the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (also Federally recognized), the Coharie, the Haliwa-Saponi, the Lumbee, the Meherrin, the Occaneechi Band of Saponi Nation, the Sappony, and the Waccamaw-Siouan. Nearly all have powwow—a great leveler among tribes large and small because dancers, singers, drums, craftspeople, emcees, food vendors, and audiences flow along a powwow circuit throughout the season. Exchanges of talent and participation between tribes allow even the smallest, most isolated tribes to carry on a powwow tradition of their own.
The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic brought in-person gatherings to a shuddering halt, but the Meherrin—the smallest of North Carolina’s state-recognized tribes—were already familiar with the challenges of holding together a distanced community. Spread among Hertford, Gates, Northampton, and Bertie Counties in the deeply rural northeastern corner of North Carolina, but also living in neighboring states, the tribe has fewer than 1,000 enrolled members. “A lot of our younger population has moved off due to lack of work down there,” Patrick Suarez explained. “So our community down there is really more of the elderly. . . . We have a lot of our younger tribal members in Virginia, Tennessee, New Mexico, so our younger population is spread out.”
So, too, are the roots of Meherrin culture and political identity. The Meherrin people likely migrated south from what is now called New York State and its surrounding region at least 1,200 years ago, diverging from the early Iroquoians. As clans grew, they faced the need to migrate in search of new land for hunting and farming. First to split for the south were the Cherokee, then the Nottoway, Tuscarora, and Meherrin (called Kauwets’a:ka, although they have been called many names throughout history). Stories of these migrations are still passed down orally among the Iroquois tribes, tracing an ancient story of migration across the Rocky Mountains, over the Great Plains, and up the Ohio River. Today, the Meherrin maintain and treasure their political and cultural alliances to the Haudenosaunee nations (also known as the Iroquois Confederacy), and practice traditions shared among Iroquoian tribes. They have helped to introduce Iroquoian culture in the North Carolina powwow circuit, and were the first to bring the Smoke Dance to a powwow in the state. Powwow is where the Meherrin enact the Iroquois ways, to rekindle the fire of allegiance with the Nottoway and the Tuscarora and to gather the community in homecoming.
Because the pandemic arrived in the United States exactly as powwow season was about to begin, American Indian communities across the country were among the earliest and most creative adopters of virtual events. Losing powwow was not only culturally disruptive but also financially devastating to those making their living through contest winnings, emcee engagements, or craft and food sales throughout the season. Patrick and Matthew began imagining a virtual Meherrin powwow as early as March, soon after a new Facebook group by the name of Social Distance Powwow had been established that was catching on like wildfire. The group’s founders—Whitney Rencountre (Crow Creek Sioux), Dan Simonds (Pequot), and Stephanie Ebert (Mi’k maq )—each make livings on the powwow circuit that had all but vanished this year. The founders wanted to create a virtual gathering place where members could post videos of themselves dancing, singing, and playing music as they would at powwow, both in celebration of the missing events and in prayer for healing from the virus and the social isolation. They had no idea that it would be the viral phenomenon it was soon to become. As of October 2020, Social Distance Powwow had 200,000 members representing 100 countries worldwide. A companion group, Social Distance Powwow Marketplace, has allowed some artisans to completely recoup their powwow circuit losses through online sales. These social media networks were not only saving powwow. They also were becoming a space in which people could speak openly about their struggles and receive support and encouragement from an international community of indigenous people in solidarity with one another.
Speaking from his home in South Dakota, Whitney, a renowned emcee, testified to what Social Distance Powwow has done for indigenous people: “We all speak different languages; we all have our own traditions. It's hard to really unite all of our people. But when we do, it creates something special. I think this page is tapping into the potential of the power of us, and what our songs and dances have replaced—the things that were taken away from us. And that was our right to speak our languages, the right to hunt and gather the way we used to, and the right to meet together, our culture being banned. I think this page is providing inspiration for a lot of people, and bringing us to a new phase in our healing as indigenous people.”
In late March, Patrick and Matthew reached out to Whitney with the idea to plan a full-fledged Meherrin Indian Nation Powwow within the Social Distance Powwow Facebook group. They wanted to recreate not only the space to gather around their powwow traditions, but also the competition categories of a contest powwow. With Whitney as emcee and a global audience larger than any to which the Meherrin had ever had access before, there was an opportunity in the midst of crisis to do something important for their small tribe, to keep their tradition, to create opportunities for artists, and to show the world that the Meherrin are here.
On the morning of Friday, October 2, the first video of Meherrin Indian Nation Virtual Powwow was uploaded to Social Distance Powwow. David Rahahę•tih Webb (Meherrin-Tuscarora), recording from his home, opened the event with the Gano:nyok in the Tuscarora language shared by the Meherrin. Gano:nyok is the traditional Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address, in which thanks are given to all that sustains and protects life and all minds are aligned in agreement and gratitude. The Red Clay Singers, an intertribal drum group serving as the virtual powwow’s host drum, soon began to livestream to the page from a backyard in Hollister, North Carolina.
Video submissions for each contest soon flooded in from across the country. Dancers and musicians competed for winner-take-all prizes in categories both universal and unique to the Meherrin Powwow. Patrick and Matthew planned for specials such as Esganye singing, Smoke Dance, and flute and hand drum contests that would highlight their Iroquoian culture. A special category was created for women’s jingle dancers to raise awareness of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women.
Getting dancers to upload videos to Social Distance Powwow was one thing. Dancers had been using the group this way for months. Orchestrating a virtual competition was another—a feat Patrick and Matthew had not seen done before. They had to invent their own way. Videos were ranked by the audience response in likes and reactions, but the special flute contest, rarely found at powwows, was judged by a respected flautist who knew just what to listen for. To keep the contests orderly and help the audience find specific contests and videos, Patrick and Matthew set up a tagging system within the Facebook group that created subpages grouping all competitors by their category. Hashtags such as #menfancyMINP and #womenjingleMINP filtered the videos for Men’s Fancy Dancers and Women’s Jingle Dancers. But as the entries, speakers, special guests, and craftspeople began to take over the group, the unmistakable excitement and frenzy of powwow weekend set in. Videos arrived from every corner of the country: Apache, Nottoway, Cayuga, Cheyenne River Sioux, Seneca, and Inupiaq. The musicians Pura Fe, Charly Lowry, and Alexis Raeana made special guest appearances to sing and represent for the Meherrin and the Tuscarora and Lumbee, their own North Carolina tribes. Late on Friday night, a tired but happy Patrick livestreamed to Social Distance Powwow to thank everyone for showing up and showing out, and for making it feel like powwow.
From Left: Charly Lowry and Alexis Raeana, Danielle Bear Women’s MMIW Jingle Special.
On Saturday morning Whitney and Patrick led a Zoom panel of tribal leaders from North Carolina and Virginia welcoming the Social Distance Powwow audience back for the second day. Each representative was given time to speak about their tribe’s story and COVID’s impact on their people. Calling from Virginia, Nottoway Chief Lynette Allston offered her words of encouragement and traced the ancient connections of the Nottoway, the Meherrin, and the Tuscarora. “All of us will have our powwows again,” she promised. “Our mental health is as important as our physical health,” Nottoway tribal leader Denise Walters reminded the panel. From North Carolina’s Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation, Tribal Chair W. A. Hayes thanked the Meherrin. “This is a really new way of communicating. Even though this is my first virtual powwow, I can still hear the drums, and frankly it just makes my heart leap.” He urged all American Indian peoples to take this time of change and protest to come together in unity and forge political change, to “continue to beat that drum really, really loud.” From the Coharie Nation in Harnett County, Tribal Administrator Greg Jacobs congratulated Patrick and all of the Meherrin Indian Nation. He spoke about the projects the Coharie are undertaking to face the future with the wisdom of the past. “Come down and visit us,” he urged the audience. “We don’t know you, but we love you.”
The morning welcome ended with the offering from Whitney of a song—a gift from the Great Sioux Nation. He spoke of the powwow as an image of concentric circles. The widest is the audience, there to socialize. The middle is the drum group, supporting the dancers. The smallest circle at the core is the arena. Those who dance in it are standing in the light, taking the time to do the work that the people need, dancing for those who are not able. He closed his eyes, and sang for those standing in the light at Meherrin Indian Nation’s Virtual Powwow.
The following week, exhausted but triumphant, Patrick Suarez and Matthew Yockonhawken Nickens reflected on all that had unfolded over the weekend. “It was everything we could have hoped for,” said Matthew. As expected, there had been some technical difficulties, and though Patrick had gotten good feedback from Meherrin elders who wondered if they could really pull it off, he knew they would need to transfer the videos to DVDs for those who struggled to navigate the virtual format. But Patrick had been receiving videos throughout the week from contestants thanking the Meherrin for what they had done. Comments of gratitude streamed in long after the powwow’s end. Viewers from across the nation promised they would try to come to Ahoskie next year. They were sorry not to be gathered together, but as one commenter wrote to Patrick, “My heart is at Meherrin powwow grounds.”
“They got a lot of good medicine from watching the dancers and the singers,” said Matthew. “And during the whole weekend, I forgot about the COVID thing and everything that was going on and all the stress that our people are carrying right now. . . . All of that seemed to kind of fall off to the side for just a moment.”
Even through the internet and across thousands of miles, the sense of cultural healing was palpable for Patrick and Matthew. “Healing is always a component of powwow,” Matthew explained. “The songs and dances themselves are prayer. . . You can feel the strength coming off of those songs and those singers.” One of the weekend’s most moving and unexpected moments had come when the powwow coincided with a scheduled livestream on Social Distance Powwow by the Cozad Singers, a famed Kiowa drum group from Oklahoma, who performed for two straight hours in honor of a relative they had recently lost. The powwow audience converged with the Cozad Singers’ viewers and the two simultaneous events fed one another. To Patrick and Matthew, the performance elevated the powwow to new viewers and new spiritual power as the line between the two virtual events blurred completely. It was a coincidence that would never have been possible on the Meherrin powwow grounds, in Ahoskie.
Connection to the physical land of the tribal grounds is deeply embedded in each local powwow, and this disconnect from place was certainly noticeable in the virtual space. But as powwow is community-specific many times over, so too was the virtual powwow still connected to land many times over. Each video uploaded from fields and backyards, parking lots and living rooms, spaces both sacred and domestic, linked the Meherrin Indian Nation not only to the land of the North Carolina coastal plain, but also to a grand vision of Indian Country in all its diversity. And at the center were the Meherrin and all their sibling tribes of North Carolina and Virginia. Watching the powwow unfold across the nation from his home in New Mexico, Matthew felt the pride of recognition. “It was really, really good for the tribe itself to have that little moment in time on a national stage for us to be able to demonstrate who we are as a people.”
Leading up to the virtual powwow weekend, Whitney Recountre had described powwow itself as an act of replacing the lost and the stolen, a pouring of the old into new vessels. Powwow counters disruption with innovation and continuity. With new technologies and social networks, the Meherrin Indian Nation met COVID-19 and its threat to community, to the elders, and to the arts with that same innovation inherent in powwow. And for a weekend, before all of Indian Country, they stepped into the light of the arena and did the work that people needed, holding powwow for those who could not.
Zoe van Buren
Zoe van Buren is the folklife director for the North Carolina Arts Council, where she administers programs that support the practice and transmission of living traditions across the state. She is the co-author of Hanging Tree Guitars (2020). She lives in Durham.
Patrick Suarez (Meherrin, Snipe Clan) currently serves as the Powwow Chairman and Councilman for the Meherrin Nation. He is an Occupational Therapist and father of four girls. His vision is to progress his nation and restore and revive Iroquois culture and ceremonies.
Matthew Yockonhawken Nickens (Meherrin, Bear Clan) serves as assistant Powwow Chairman for the Meherrin Nation. He is a father of four living in Albuquerque, N.M. His vision is to rekindle the fires of the longhouse and reunite the Kauwetsaka people.
Sandra Davidson is the content director of the North Carolina Arts Council, where she curates, produces, and develops content that highlights the diversity and vitality of the arts in our state. Trained as a folklorist, she is a practicing photographer and multimedia storyteller who lives in Durham.