A Remarkable Year of Learning: Notes from a Folklife Apprenticeship

Introduction by Zoe Van Buren | Story by Paul Brown and Trevor McKenzie

Tuesday, November 2, 2021

Thanks to a partnership with South Arts and its “In These Mountains: Central Appalachian Folk Arts and Culture Initiative,” the Folklife Program of the North Carolina Arts Council has been able to support pairs of artists—a mentor and a student—for year-long apprenticeships in the traditional arts and folklife of their Appalachian communities. Many folklife programs around the country offer such apprenticeships because they are a time-tested means of investing in technical know-how, the transmission of cultural knowledge, and community relationships.

In 2020, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, old-time fiddler Paul Brown (of Winston-Salem) and Trevor McKenzie (of Boone) received an In These Mountains Folklife Apprenticeship grant and embarked upon the age-old relationship of student and mentor under very unusual circumstances, using video calling technology to meet weekly while sheltering at home. When they were finally able to see each other in person, in the summer of 2021, they celebrated the end of their apprenticeship year with a live segment on Mount Airy’s beloved WPAQ radio station.

Although officially these apprenticeships last for one year, the relationships between the artists who go through this program last a lifetime. Paul and Trevor reflected on the importance of a year spent together during a time of isolation, the connection between traditional arts and knowledge of people and place, and what it means to them to still be playing the old fiddle tunes of the North Carolina/Virginia border region, even in the digital era.

Paul: Trevor and I look back upon a remarkable year of learning through the Appalachian Folklife Apprenticeship program. We both feel we understand more about music, traditions, and life in our region of the mid-South than we did at the outset. I’ve had the great privilege of passing along repertoire that I learned when I was Trevor’s age and younger from musicians whose sources dated back to the Civil War era and beyond. It’s been a peak experience, and I think we both consider it just a start. 

Modern technology enabled us to meet regularly despite the pandemic. We used Zoom. I looked forward to every week’s meeting with this curious, good-natured, cracking smart young man who deliberately set out to learn in an unfamiliar musical environment the techniques, rhythms, phrasings, and melodies of times gone by. Talk about a challenge! 

Trevor: I got to know Paul Brown several years ago while working at the Augusta Heritage Center’s Old-Time Week, at Davis and Elkins College, in West Virginia. He and his partner, Terri McMurray, were teaching a class on the history and sounds of string band music from western North Carolina and southwestern Virginia. I was fortunate to sit in as a guitarist and staff musician, playing alongside them over the course of the week. It was the start of a friendship with both of them that has continued and I have since had the opportunity to play music alongside Paul and Terri at several other festivals and concerts. At these events I noticed how Paul was able to switch gears between fiddle styles. In particular, I was drawn to the sound and techniques that Paul learned from mentors such as Luther Davis, Tommy Jarrell, and Parley Parsons—fiddlers whose music was rooted in an era before radios and had a much more rhythmic sound than the bluegrass/honkytonk styles that I was familiar with.

Paul: Trevor’s first fiddle mentors, some of whom I knew personally, came up in an era when bluegrass, swing, rockabilly, jazz, and classic country were on most players’ minds. These mentors and styles were his starting point.  

He says that executing the notes, bowing, and phrasing of the older styles he’s studied with me is more difficult than what he learned earlier. For me, it’s just the opposite. I’d like to understand better some of the newer ways of playing descended from the old mountain styles. I can hear that they’re related—and we’ve frequently examined those relationships—but the execution feels somewhat foreign to me. I suppose it’s all a matter of perspective. 

Trevor: Growing up in the thin part of southwest Virginia, sandwiched one county away from North Carolina and one away from West Virginia, I was fortunate to be in an area with a lot of talented musicians to learn from. Part of my attraction to traditional music developed from my interest in history, an interest that started from spending a lot of time on my family’s farm in my early years. It seemed that—although there are many types of music emanating from this part of Appalachia—traditional songs and tunes spoke a language that mirrored the landscape and lifeways of agricultural communities in this part of the world. By the time I started trying to play traditional music, many of the older players around the area were those who came of age in the Depression era and World War II—an exciting time of radio and modernization in rural areas. I think the way that I naturally go about playing the fiddle reflects what I call the “VFW dance hall” variety of fiddling, with sounds of early bluegrass and honky-tonk, a result of learning from and admiring the music of people from this point in the history of mountain communities.

Paul: One of the most inspiring outcomes of this year has been our exploration of lifestyles, work, social history, rhythms of life, and spoken language that our traditional fiddling reflects. This is an undertaking both broad and deep, one that has occupied a place within me ever since I was a little kid listening to my mom tell stories between her songs, or hearing the old relatives transplanted from Virginia weave their stories through an evening. I know that Trevor and I will continue to explore this ground.

Trevor: I feel I need to outline my background to clarify why I asked Paul to mentor me through this apprenticeship. When I contacted Paul about possibly mentoring me in older fiddle styles and techniques, I was wanting to dig deeper into traditional sounds and back past the style of music that I was comfortable with. Paul’s formation as a musician was built out of interactions and friendships with people whose lives and music were connected to a completely different era, many of them having lives and music more connected to the nineteenth century than the twentieth. The styles of fiddling reflect the difference almost like a separate language. When Paul puts the techniques of these older fiddlers to work, his solo fiddling almost sounds like a full band in itself. As Paul relayed to me from discussions about fiddling with the late, great Tommy Jarrell, the goal is to have the instrument playing all the parts, the rhythm and the melody simultaneously. It’s an approach that was completely foreign to me and I have enjoyed the challenge of trying to learn to tackle some of these older styles with Paul’s guidance.  

Paul: One of the stories I tell to as many musicians as I can is the day at least 40 years back when the fiddler Benny Jarrell, of Mount Airy, stopped me as I was playing with his dad, Tommy, and bluntly told me I was out of time. He deeply startled 26-year-old me. Then Benny had us begin again, and shouted “Right there!” every time I was out. It was a turning point for me, a day when I started to listen more intently when making music than I ever had.

Trevor recently remarked that this year has prompted him to start listening more carefully than he ever had before to this old music, to the rhythms of language, and to his own more modern personal repertoire. He says he’s making discoveries all the time. That is a great outcome.

Trevor: Throughout this apprenticeship, Paul has shared more than just tunes and techniques. He has shared with me his memories of friends and family, snippets of personalities and life histories of people with whom he spent valuable time decades ago. Alongside the music, he conveyed to me the feeling of what it was like to interact with these mentors. I think Paul is a rare person in the way he is able to present these people with an immediacy and an empathy that goes beyond just storytelling. It is a feeling that is carried over into his own music and how he presents it and shares it with others. It is a sort of magic that Paul is able to accomplish in this way and I felt fortunate to be able to witness this weekly.  

Paul: We’ve shared with one another the sense that this project helped keep us emotionally afloat through the first phase of the coronavirus pandemic. The structure of what we did inadvertently became something of a lifesaver for us.

I would love for Trevor to know every old tune that I’ve learned from people whose art was informed by times and circumstances I could never experience, and pass them on, live and in person, to new generations. The notes? They’re the easiest part to learn. How people speak? How we sound? How life sounded years ago? How it all flows through an individual or communal heart, mind, bow arm, and voice into recognizable music of a place in what we call style? It takes time, and deep listening, to get a grip on all that. It also happens to be one of the finest accomplishments, and some of the best fun, any musician could hope for. 

Trevor has been a fabulous apprentice. I’m forever grateful to him for having proposed this joint endeavor. I keep telling him I’ve learned as much as he has. Whether he believes it or not, it’s true.  

Trevor: I cannot thank Paul enough for what he has shared with me both as a musical mentor and a friend during the months of this apprenticeship. Both of us think of this as only the start of my learning these fiddle styles and of the projects we can work on together to present the music and history of this region to others. Thanks to the North Carolina Arts Council and South Arts for providing the opportunity for me to work with Paul as an apprentice and for supporting both of us during this past year. It has been a highlight in some troublesome times in the world and I look forward to years ahead of music and friendship. 

Paul: I’m also deeply thankful to the North Carolina Arts Council and South Arts. You placed value on Trevor’s idea, and on the idea that in a world awash in pop culture whizzing by at warp speed, the old tunes, passed down one-to-one, burnished over time, reflecting the lives of real people past and present, deserve a hearing and recognition, too, plus preservation.

For more information about the Folklife & Traditional Arts program of the N.C. Arts Council, visit https://www.ncarts.org/discover/folk-traditional-arts.

About the North Carolina Arts Council
The North Carolina Arts Council builds on our state’s long-standing love of the arts, leading the way to a more vibrant future. The Arts Council is an economic catalyst, fueling a thriving nonprofit creative sector that generates $2.12 billion in annual direct economic activity. The Arts Council also sustains diverse arts expression and traditions while investing in innovative approaches to art-making. The North Carolina Arts Council has proven to be a champion for youth by cultivating tomorrow’s creative citizens through arts education. NCArts.org

About the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources

The N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources (NCDNCR) is the state agency with a vision to be the leader in using the state's natural and cultural resources to build the social, cultural, educational and economic future of North Carolina. NCDNCR's mission is to improve the quality of life in our state by creating opportunities to experience excellence in the arts, history, libraries and nature in North Carolina by stimulating learning, inspiring creativity, preserving the state's history, conserving the state's natural heritage, encouraging recreation and cultural tourism, and promoting economic development.
NCDNCR includes 27 historic sites, seven history museums, two art museums, three science museums, three aquariums and Jennette's Pier, 41 state parks and recreation areas, the N.C. Zoo, the N.C. Symphony Orchestra, the State Library, the State Archives, the N.C. Arts Council, the African American Heritage Commission, State Preservation Office and the Office of State Archaeology, and the Division of Land and Water Stewardship. For more information, please visit www.ncdcr.gov.

2021 North Carolina Appalachian Folklife Apprenticeships Announced

North Carolina Arts Council

Thursday, September 9, 2021

RALEIGH, N.C. — The North Carolina Arts Council announced today that five traditional artist teams from western North Carolina have received the third annual North Carolina Appalachian Folklife Apprenticeships awards.

Richard Bowman, of Mount Airy, will mentor Chad Ritchie, of Taylorsville, in the old-time fiddle tunes he learned from his community in southwestern Virginia and the Round Peak area of North Carolina. Among a shrinking number of his generation who grew up immersed in his region’s music culture, Bowman is a highly regarded old-time and dance fiddler with first-place awards both in individual and band competitions at fiddlers’ conventions such as those at Galax, Mt. Airy, and Fiddlers Grove. His band, the Slate Mountain Ramblers, has been a mainstay of North Carolina’s old-time dance and festival culture for three decades. His apprentice, Chad Ritchie, was raised in a family of bluegrass musicians and founded the Alexander Junior Appalachian Musician program in 2016 to teach old-time music to school-age children in his community. Bowman will teach in the traditional way that he learned: by ear, knee-to-knee, at full speed. Of Ritchie, Bowman says: “I can tell he is serious about learning and trust he will preserve this music and the tradition of sharing it as it was shared with me.”

Luthier and old-time musician Joe Thrift, of Elkin, will mentor Ben Masterson, of Winston-Salem, and Kelly Sivy, of Elkin, in instrument-building and the old-time music tradition of the Round Peak/Surry County region. Thrift was raised in a family of instrument-builders and church musicians in Winston Salem, North Carolina. He was introduced to old-time music and violin-making by local luthiers such as Dave Sturgill and Albert Hash, and continued his study of the craft in England. He is one of the few modern fiddlers whose original compositions have entered the old-time repertoire. Sivy, who relocated to North Carolina from Fairbanks, AK, to become a luthier, and Masterson, who works as a public historian and traditional woodworker at Old Salem Museums & Gardens, sought out Thrift’s mentorship and quickly became committed students. The trio will train in traditional hand tool techniques used for the most popular instruments played by folk musicians today, and will document Thrift’s personal stories of the Surry County region and its music culture. About entering the communities of traditional music and craftsmanship, Sivy says: “What I appreciate most of all in these pursuits is the culture of mentorship between individuals, within families, and across generations, which has resulted in the emergence, and, with luck, preservation, of centuries-long traditions.”

Josh Goforth, of Marshall, will mentor Tim McWilliams, of Asheville, in the traditional music of the Madison and Buncombe county region. Raised in a family that maintained singing and fiddle tunes as part of the rhythm of everyday life, Goforth is a respected teacher and performer of ballads, shape-note songs, storytelling, banjo, fiddle, mandolin, guitar, and bass. Tim McWilliams will focus on the guitar and banjo styles of Madison and Buncombe Counties and the music of Byard Ray, Marcus Martin, the Freeman family, Lee Wallin, Jerry Adams, and Dale McCoy. Goforth knew these people personally and McWilliams hopes to root his own style and teaching in their unique styles. McWilliams is a music teacher himself and a descendant of Appalachian out-migrants. He says, “To achieve my goals of becoming a resource in my community, a tradition bearer, and a teacher that aspiring musicians can come to in order to gain a complete understanding of the traditional music of Appalachia, I have to learn at the feet of a master.”

Rodney Sutton, Willard Watson, and Melissa Edd dancing on a porch
Apprentice Willard Watson III stands between Rodney Sutton and his partner Melissa Edd. Sutton will mentor Watson in the dancing style of his great-grandfather. Photo by Zoe van Buren.

Rodney Sutton, of Asheville, will mentor Willard Watson III, of Boone, in the flatfoot dancing style of Watson’s great-grandfather, Willard Watson Sr., and in the percussive dance styles of Sutton’s long-time dance group, the Green Grass Cloggers. Sutton and the Green Grass Cloggers learned steps from Willard Watson Sr. and Robert Dotson, both of Watauga County. Watson and Dotson practiced dance styles picked up from local community dances—complicated styles that take a long time to master. Sutton devoted years fine-tuning his own ability to perform these styles and teach them. He met Willard Watson III in 2014 and shared with him memories of his great-grandfather going back to the 1970s. Knowledge of Watson’s dancing techniques passed out of the family for several generations. Working with Sutton, Willard Watson III will have an opportunity to resume his great-grandfather’s legacy.

Luthier James Condino, of Asheville, will mentor Zach Dease, of Advance, in the traditional crafting of stringed instruments, particularly guitars. Together they will focus on using locally sourced North Carolina wood in response to the growing unsustainability of the global wood market on which the luthier craft relies. Raised in a family of builders and makers, Condino has been making instruments for more than 40 years. He began mentoring Dease in 2016. Dease hopes to hone his guitar-building skill in service to his community and congregation in Davie County, where he is a minister in the Moravian church, a denomination with deep historical and cultural ties to the Winston-Salem area. “Guitar- building helps me express my faith,” Dease says. “Most of the guitars I have built and am currently building have been for Moravians. Each guitar lays the foundation for connections to new people, thus introducing them not only to me, but also to this regional art form.”

The N.C. Appalachian Folklife Apprenticeships program, launched in 2019, supports 12-month apprenticeships in the folk and traditional arts of the many cultural communities within the state’s Appalachian Regional Commission counties. South Arts funds the program through its In These Mountains: Central Appalachian Folk Arts & Culture Initiative.

Mentor artists are tradition-bearers committed to the perpetuation of a traditional art form or practice of their cultural heritage. Mentor artists are recognized by fellow artists and their own community members as skilled and dedicated practitioners. Apprentices are dedicated students whom mentor artists have chosen for a sustained period of study in their art form or practice. Throughout the apprenticeship, the mentors and apprentices document and publicly present their work together within their communities.

For more information about the Folklife & Traditional Arts program of the N.C. Arts Council, visit https://www.ncarts.org/discover/folk-traditional-arts.

About the North Carolina Arts Council
The North Carolina Arts Council builds on our state’s long-standing love of the arts, leading the way to a more vibrant future. The Arts Council is an economic catalyst, fueling a thriving nonprofit creative sector that generates $2.12 billion in annual direct economic activity. The Arts Council also sustains diverse arts expression and traditions while investing in innovative approaches to art-making. The North Carolina Arts Council has proven to be a champion for youth by cultivating tomorrow’s creative citizens through arts education. NCArts.org

About the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources

The N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources (NCDNCR) is the state agency with a vision to be the leader in using the state's natural and cultural resources to build the social, cultural, educational and economic future of North Carolina. NCDNCR's mission is to improve the quality of life in our state by creating opportunities to experience excellence in the arts, history, libraries and nature in North Carolina by stimulating learning, inspiring creativity, preserving the state's history, conserving the state's natural heritage, encouraging recreation and cultural tourism, and promoting economic development.
NCDNCR includes 27 historic sites, seven history museums, two art museums, three science museums, three aquariums and Jennette's Pier, 41 state parks and recreation areas, the N.C. Zoo, the N.C. Symphony Orchestra, the State Library, the State Archives, the N.C. Arts Council, the African American Heritage Commission, State Preservation Office and the Office of State Archaeology, and the Division of Land and Water Stewardship. For more information, please visit www.ncdcr.gov.

Introducing North Carolina’s 2021 “In These Mountains” Folk and Traditional Arts Master Artist Fellows

Zoe van Buren

Thursday, May 13, 2021


South Arts recently awarded its third round of “In These Mountains” Folk and Traditional Arts Master Artist Fellowships to 15 Appalachian culture-bearers from North Carolina, Kentucky, and Tennessee. This fellowship program is a part of an initiative of the Atlanta-based regional arts organization that supports folk and traditional arts in the central Appalachian Mountains.

Five artists from North Carolina received the fellowship: Ashleigh Shanti (Asheville), Betty Maney (Cherokee), Mary W. Thompson (Cherokee), Mary Greene (Boone), and Theresa Gloster (Lenoir).

The Folk and Traditional Arts Master Artist Fellowship recognizes the commitments of Appalachian artists who steward the traditional arts and practices of their communities. The fellowship provides these artists with resources to grow into advanced stages of their careers. 



Chef and recipe-bearer Ashleigh Shanti will research African and Appalachian foodways of the post-Jim Crow era through interviews, recipe documentation, and participation in foraging traditions. The resulting “Green Book” guide to Appalachian foodways will be a resource for emerging Black culinarians whom Shanti says will “be ushered into mentorship through new connections uncovered in a little-known food world, gain an intimate look at exactly who we were then, and, finally, be confidently guided by the Black voices of Appalachian past.”



Cherokee basket maker, potter, bead worker, and clothing maker Betty Maney will build an outdoor studio for teaching and demonstrations and pursue her life’s work of learning the techniques and histories of Cherokee craft. Maney says: “As long as other artists and crafters are willing to teach, I will be there to learn when possible.”


A shape-note hymn written in 1879 by Josiah Kelley Alwood performed by Mary Greene


Mountain-dulcimer player and singer of folk songs, ballads, and shape-note gospel, Mary Greene will visit archives of Appalachian music; meet and study with ballad singers, dulcimer players, and shape-note singers at gatherings throughout the South; and develop her educational offerings. “The tradition must have teachers available to train the singers,” says Green.



A maker of double-weave river-cane baskets and traditional Cherokee stamped pottery, Mary W. Thompson will develop a studio and gallery space to be used as a classroom where she can host artists and share knowledge. It will be “a space where I can teach and learn,” Thompson says. “I would like to have the time and freedom to create and show my work. This would be my place to continue a tradition of passing our Cherokee art and culture from one family member to the next, and from one generation to the next.”



Storyteller and memory painter Theresa Gloster will expand her workspace for her artwork, which will allow her to welcome visitors from the Blue Ridge Craft Trails, on which she will be listed as a studio site. "I really just need a little room, where I could do all of my art," says Gloster.

The 2021 fellowship recipients represent both the diversity of Appalachia and the ways in which everyday people in the mountains have built creative outlets for their experiences and ways of knowing. Those expressions have been nurtured over generations into traditions to pass down and build from, each generation arising to use these cultural tools in new eras.

North Carolina’s recipients demonstrate that there are many ways to inherit one’s culture and many ways to share it. Traditional arts may be learned informally, through the day-to-day business of living, or they might be sought out with intention to recover and revitalize a culture. They may be made alone or together, in jam circles or studios, in homes or in the kitchens of award-winning restaurants. Traditions may be defined by the keeping of materials and techniques, such as foraged food or river cane harvested from the land. The traditions may be expressed through the messages contained in songs and images as their medium changes from artist to artist.

No matter their form, all traditional arts are vessels that deliver crucial information from generation to generation: how we play, how we worship, how we provide, and how we get by. They speak to the importance of the individual artist inside of the bigger story of we. The recipients of the Folk and Traditional Arts Master Artist Fellowship were selected not only for the excellence of their work but also for the ways in which they have committed their lives to cultivating traditions that belong to entire communities of Appalachians. Recognizing these artists illuminates the lives of others: neighbors, ancestors, and those who will follow in their footsteps.

Learn more about this year’s recipients of the fellowships in all three states and those who received the grants in years past here.  

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).

My Heart Is at Meherrin Powwow

By Zoe van Buren
With Patrick Suarez, Matthew Yockonhawken Nickens, and Sandra Davidson

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

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.

Charlie Lowry and Alexis Raeana

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
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

Patrick Suarez
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 Nickens

Matthew Nickens 
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

Sandra Davidson 
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.

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