DURHAM — A Native American powwow is a celebration of culture and tradition, and at its center is a drumbeat that often adds in number and grows in volume but never changes time.
That’s because it represents the beating of the heart, the difference between life and death.
The high school gymnasium at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics reverberated with that drumbeat Saturday as hundreds turned out for the state’s first powwow of the year. Members of several tribes joined in with songs that often appeared to test the vocal cords, while others in full dress performed dances symbolizing a way of life that has lasted centuries.
Nina Locklear, 31, a Lumbee from Fayetteville, bounced to the drumbeat as the dancers made their way into a sacred circle. She was holding her 8-month-old son, Chase; he bobbed up and down in her arms, eyes wide open to the parade of brightly colored dancers in feathers and animal hides.
“It’s just a way to celebrate our heritage, our culture and share it with other people,” Locklear said. “A lot of these people are not related, but they consider themselves family and friends because they powwow together.”
The powwow at NCSSM began 23 years ago when Native American students at the elite public school approached then-art teacher Joe Liles with a proposal to hold one there. Liles embraced the idea. Today he is retired and a member of the Southern Sun drum circle, one of seven groups that performed at the powwow.
“The Indian students said, ‘We want to have a powwow to invite all the tribes of the state in order that they would send their children here,’ ” Liles said. “It was Indian affirmative action. They wanted to create awareness among the Indian people of the state to the school.”
This year, Olivia Richardson, a member of the Haliwa-Saponi tribe and a 2009 NCSSM graduate, served as the head female dancer.
The powwow recognizes that Native Americans belong to their tribes and to America. Members speak proudly of the lawyers, doctors, engineers and other professionals in attendance.
The procession is led by American and Native American flags, carried side by side. J.D. Moore, a Waccamaw Siouan who was master of ceremonies, paid special tribute to the Native Americans who served in the military.
He also reminded the attendees of recent losses among the tribes, including Faith Hedgepeth, a UNC-Chapel Hill student who was found dead more than a year ago in what police have called a homicide. She was 19, from Hollister and a Haliwa-Saponi member.
While the powwow was mostly attended by Native Americans, others visited to see the festivities.
Rebecca Barbee and her partner, Jess Dorrance, live in the neighborhood and brought their twin daughters, Ann and Lucinda, 6. The powwow dovetailed with the books on Native American life the twins had been reading.
“We didn’t realize there were so many dances and the meanings behind them,” Barbee said.
As she spoke, about a dozen men in traditional Northern dress – a style originating from the tribes from the Northern Plains – performed a “grass dance.” There are differing versions of how the dance began. One suggests it started from the dancers sent out to trample the grass before a ceremonial dance began. Dancers wear two bright feathers on their heads and an outfit decorated with thin ribbons, resembling grass swaying in the wind.
The girls favored the attire of dancer Tom Neas, 20, a journalism student at Elon University.
He’s not a Native American, but as a Boy Scout and middle-schooler from Chapel Hill, he was introduced to the dancing and discovered he enjoyed it. He’s been doing it for seven years. His garb included a black spade simply because he knew there is no spiritual significance to it.
“There’s a lot to this,” he said of the dancing. “It’s fun, and it’s also keeping these traditions alive.”
Kane: 919-829-4861; Twitter: @dankanenando