How A Virtual Powwow Helped Heal A Spirit Broken During The Pandemic

May 8, 2020
Originally published on May 8, 2020 4:01 pm

It's powwow season — the time of year when across the country, Native American tribes should be getting together to celebrate their culture with food, dancing, singing and drumming. Kay Oxendine is a member of the Haliwa Saponi Tribe in North Carolina.

"Every year we know it's coming; like, the birds sing differently," she told NPR. "It's almost like spring arrives when the powwow does."

Oxendine is an author and educator and the mistress of ceremonies for a number of powwows in the eastern U.S. It's a job she loves: telling stories to the crowd and introducing the dancers, singers and drummers. She was set to be the first woman to emcee her tribe's powwow, scheduled for Friday, April 17, to Sunday April 19, at the Tribal Ceremonial Grounds in Hollister, N.C.

About 5,000 people would've been there, but she knew it would be canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic. What she says she didn't expect was that her mind and body were still expecting the celebration.

"So I wake up on Friday morning and it's like I wake up and I open my eyes and I'm looking, oh, my God, it's here! Literally was like a kid. And I jumped out of bed, and I'm like YAY, and I said to my son, it's powwow time. And he was like, 'Mom.' "

She felt physically ill.

"I actually threw up. I actually I got physically ill. It felt like I was pregnant but couldn't give birth."

Then, she says she noticed on Facebook that a member of the Haliwa Saponi Tribal Council had scheduled a virtual Haliwa powwow. "And I'm like, man, you know, stop, what are you doing?" It seemed like such a strange idea.

But she says it was wonderful "because what she did, she encouraged people to still dress in their regalia. And so one of our previous tribal administrators, Archie Lynch, who is also my cousin, he lit a fire and he was out there and he had sage. He was blessing the grounds. It was in his backyard. But, you know, it just meant the world to me."

Following the powwow, there's normally an after party with a deejay. This year, one of the tribal members held a virtual after party.

"We were brought up on Otis Redding and soul music around here — music that just makes you want to get up and dance," she says.

So Oxendine got up and danced.

"I'm sitting in my room, the music is blasting. I'm sitting in front of my computer, I'm dancing in my living room. My son thinks I've lost my mind. "

It was just what her spirit needed.

"It was it was just the most beautiful thing I think I've ever encountered. It helped me. It really helped me heal a lot."

: 5/08/20

The audio version of this story incorrectly says that Kay Oxendine is the longtime emcee of the Haliwa Saponi Powwow. She is a longtime powwow emcee, but this was to be her first time for the Haliwa Saponi.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And this is powwow season. This is the time of year when Native American tribes should be getting together to cook, eat, dance, drum and celebrate their culture. Kay Oxendine is an author and a member of the Haliwa Saponi Tribe in North Carolina. She's the longtime emcee for the tribe's powwow and was set to do it again this year, but then the coronavirus outbreak.

KAY OXENDINE: Every year, we know it's coming like the birds sing differently. It's almost like spring arrives when the powwow does, and that energy was still here. We knew it was canceled. What we didn't expect was that feeling would still be here. So I wake up on Friday morning, and I jumped out of bed and I'm like, yay, and I said to my son, it's powwow time. And he was like, Mom. I actually - I got physically ill. It felt like I was pregnant but couldn't give birth.

I noticed on Facebook that one of the tribal council members had started something called virtual Haliwa powwow. And I'm like, man, you know, stop, you know (laughter)? What are you doing? But it was so wonderful because what she encouraged people to still dress in their regalia. And our previous tribal administrator, Archie Lynch, he lit a fire and he was out there. And he had sage. He was blessing the grounds. It was in his backyard, but it just meant the world to me. Saturday night after the powwow, we have what we call an afterparty, and it's usually deejayed.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Oh, yeah.

OXENDINE: So one of our tribal members held a virtual powwow party. Oh, my God.

(SOUNBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Are ya'll ready to party?

OXENDINE: I'm sitting in my room. The music is blasting. I'm sitting in front of my computer. I'm dancing in my living room. My son thinks I've lost my mind. That helped me. It really helped me heal a lot.

GREENE: Kay Oxendine on the tribal powwow season that wasn't this year.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The audio version of this story incorrectly says that Kay Oxendine is the longtime emcee of the Haliwa Saponi Powwow. She is a longtime powwow emcee, but this was to be her first time for the Haliwa Saponi.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.