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

Kay Oxendine of the Haliwa Saponi Tribe in North Carolina, was set to serve as the first woman to emcee of the tribe's annual powwow — until the event was canceled amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Courtesy of Kay Oxendine
Kay Oxendine of the Haliwa Saponi Tribe in North Carolina, was set to serve as the first woman to emcee of the tribe's annual powwow — until the event was canceled amid the coronavirus pandemic.

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."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: May 7, 2020 at 11:00 PM CDT
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.
As supervising editor for Arts and Culture at NPR based at NPR West in Culver City, Ted Robbins plans coverage across NPR shows and online, focusing on TV at a time when there's never been so much content. He thinks "arts and culture" encompasses a lot of human creativity — from traditional museum offerings to popular culture, and out-of-the-way people and events.
Rose Friedman is an Associate Editor for NPR's Arts, Books & Culture desk. She edits radio pieces on a range of subjects, including books, pop culture, fine arts, theater, obituaries and the occasional Harry Potter-check-in. She is also co-creator of NPR's annual Book Concierge and the podcast recommendation site Earbud.fm. In addition, Rose has edited commentaries for the network, as well as regular features like This Week's Must Read on All Things Considered.