The emcee advised the crowd to watch for smoke under Mason Richardson’s moccasins as he whirled across the Fetzer Gym’s floor.
Richardson, 9, bounced and stomped across the hardwood for several minutes before capping his dance with a cartwheel – all while wearing orange regalia that might’ve weighed as much as he does. Several dollars bills – dropped by some of the hundreds of onlookers – lay at his feet by the time he stopped to catch his breath.
“I got tired,” said Richardson, of the Haliwa-Saponi tribe in Hollister. “But I just kept moving to the beat.”
Richardson was one of hundreds of Native Americans who congregated at UNC-Chapel Hill on Saturday to dance, eat and celebrate the centuries-old culture that the Carolina Indian Circle has kept alive with an annual powwow for the past 29 years.
The state government recognizes eight tribes across North Carolina: the mountains-based Eastern Band of Cherokee; the Coharie, Harnett and Sampson counties; the Haliwa-Saponi in Halifax and Warren counties; the Lumbee of Robeson County; the Meherrin of Hertford County; the Occaneechi Band of Saponi Nation in Alamance County, the Sappony in Person County and the Waccamaw-Siouan in Columbus and Bladen counties.
Organizers, all UNC students, say members of most of the tribes made their way onto campus to watch or take part in the dance competitions.
“They work so hard to put this together,” UNC Chancellor Carol Folt told the crowd as the festivities started at about noon.
Some came from as far away as New Mexico, said Harley Locklear, a UNC senior and member of the Lumbee tribe. Students tried to publicize the event more this year, he said, because it’s the second year that half of admission funds will go toward the Faith Memorial Fund.
The fund benefits a scholarship program honoring slain UNC student Faith Hedgepeth, a 19-year-old Haliwa-Saponi member who was found beaten to death in 2012. The organizers dedicated the following year’s event to her.
“I think we do such a good job of keeping her memory alive that people here feel connected to her even if they didn’t know her,” Locklear said.
Many of the attendees did know each other, and some likened the event to a family reunion. They talked and held one another’s babies while sitting in lawn chairs they brought from home.
But the powwow drew outsiders too. Drummers sent tremors through the walls of the facility, prompting some passers-by to poke their heads inside the gym during dance competitions.
Dancers wore vibrant colors and moved with a purpose – to heal or tell stories of hunting and war.
One of the dancers was Yvonne Jacobs Richardson, 32, a member of the Waccamaw-Siouan tribe. With otter skins hanging from her braids, she laughed thinking about how her weekend activities compare with her work life as the manager of a truck rental company in Buckhead.
This is the way you touch base with who you are.
Yvonne Jacobs Richardson
“We live in the regular world most days without thinking about it,” Richardson said of her heritage. “This is the way you touch base with who you are.”
Richardson has danced at powwows since she was a little girl, but Saturday’s event held special significance to her. It was the first time she’s been to such a celebration since the death of her father, Martin Eddie Jacobs Sr., on Feb. 21.
“It’s important to keep these things going,” she said. “My parents grew up going to them when North Carolina was still segregated.”
Richardson wore blue – her dad’s favorite color – in his honor.
“It gives me an extra boost,” she said.