All photos by Carolyn de Berry
“For three days in September, this is our sacred ground,” says Pow Wow chairperson Jennifer Baxter Revels as she stands under a burgundy fabric shelter on a mild Saturday afternoon at Jaycee Park in Greensboro.
Meandering up a winding path through dappled sunlight, visitors to the 45th Annual Guilford Native American Association Pow Wow follow the echoing sounds of drumming in the distance. Along the way, golf carts buzz by those on foot, ferrying people to and from the parking lot at the edge of the park.
Nestled in the grove of trees at the top of the hill is a wide central circle outlined by benches. Surrounding this heart of the gathering are vendor tables filled with handmade goods from Indigenous artisans and tents sheltering intricately adorned dancers. The entire scene is strikingly isolated from the bustling traffic on Battleground Avenue and Lawndale Drive that border this haven of green.
Over the last almost half century, GNAA has grown its annual Pow Wow into a treasured gathering for native peoples from across the Southeast and beyond. This year, 28 tribes are represented and the vendor spots are completely booked.
“You gotta get some fry bread, and they’re giving away mango pepper jelly,” says a woman in a bright pink GNAA T-shirt as she tugs on the arm of a friend, leading her towards the line of food trucks. Everywhere around the rows of bleachers and the blankets on the ground near the center circle, people sit with heaping plates of Indian tacos or fry bread smothered in jam, smiling and laughing.
This year’s Pow Wow holds special significance as it’s dedicated to longtime GNAA executive director Rick Oxendine, a member of the Lumbee tribe who is stepping down after 22 years with the organization. He speaks with a deep affection about the history and strength of Indigenous people in the Triad, but also with candor about the past and present challenges facing this vibrant but often invisibilized community.
“We are always on the lookout for volunteers,” he says when asked what’s needed. Non-natives can contact GNAA about how to support the annual Pow Wow, but also about other opportunities to partner throughout the year. Donations are also welcomed, as government funding for Urban Indian Centers like GNAA is constantly being challenged.
Central to today’s gathering is the role of veterans, who are considered honored at Native functions. Perry Hunt, Jr. is a member of the GNAA Pow Wow Committee and is himself a combat veteran of both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
“The Eagle Staff is our flag. It represents our culture as a people,” he says. He points to a looped staff that’s adorned with feathers that are gifted from Native tribes or in memory of those who have passed on. It’s mounted at the center of the platform at the head of the circle, bordered by the American, North Carolina, Tribal, and POW/MIA flags on either side of the dais. During the grand entrance at the start of the Pow Wow, all five are ceremonially brought into the space by an Honor Guard.
While every step and garment here has layers of meaning, the people of the GNAA like Baxter, Oxendine, and Hunt are joyful about sharing the space with non-natives who come to celebrate alongside them.
The Pow Wow pulses with joy and community, even when the circle is empty and the drums are quiet. As the crowd mills around, stopping for hugs and impromptu reunions, children dressed in rainbow-colored fringe dance in the open spaces to a beat that none of the visitors can hear. At home within their community, the bells wrapped around their legs jingle in time to their laughter.
Learn more about the Guilford Native American Association at guilfordnative.com.
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