On March 2, 2019 I attended the 32rd Annual Carolina Indian Circle (CIC) Powwow at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. CIC is the Native American student organization at UNC Chapel Hill. The powwow was one of their largest to date for the university, with more registered dancers and general spectators than ever before. Like most of the other college powwows they had dance contests for children, teens and adults, along with the drum contest. This year the CIC Committee made the decision to host a Red Dress Special for teen and adult women. The Red Dress Special was dedicated to and to bring attention to Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW).
Let me back up for a moment, I know that all of my readers may not be familiar with powwows. I will work on a larger post to go into the detailed history of what a powwow is and how it came to be what it is today. For the purpose of this blog I will keep this as short and simple as possible. Powwows are a Pan-Indian movement across Indian Country. Indian Country being the entire North American Continent. Powwows have a lot of deep cultural and historical roots from various tribal communities, and take place across The United States and Canada. There may be slight differences based on the region, the Tribe, or Native-based Organization hosting the powwow, but for the most part the common thread and structure remains the same. This is a place and space where Indigenous people can gather to dance, sing, socialize, celebrate and spend time with other Indigenous people. Most powwows feature contests in the various dance categories, allowing dancers a chance to win various prizes. ‘Specials’ are sometimes also something else featured in the contest portion of powwows. ‘Specials’ can sometimes feature special contests where the sponsor will outline a specific category or style whether it be personal preference, or to honor a person, group of people, the creator etc. In this case the Red Dress Special required the participants(ladies) to wear a red dress, they could dance in any dance category and they had to be at least 13 years old.
“We wanted to highlight the issue of MMIW because its growing prevalence, as well as honor the memory of Faith.” Elena Jacobs-Polanco, one of the CIC Powwow co-chairs, shared with me. “So this special is our way of remembering and honoring our sisters.” Faith Hedgepeth, mentioned by Elena, was a member of the Haliwa-Saponi Tribe, and UNC Chapel Hill student whose murder is still unsolved. Faith was murdered in her off campus apartment in 2012, you can learn more about her case here.
Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) is a movement that has been gaining more attention in the past few years through grassroots efforts, the Violence Against Women Act, support from Tribes, politicians, and the power of social media. Historically, Indigenous women have been murdered and removed from their communities through human trafficking for centuries, and their families and communities have been left without answers, justice and closure on their lost family members. Now, with the power of the internet and social media it is easier to spread the word when someone is missing however awareness will never replace justice. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) Indigenous women and girls are murdered at a rate of 10 times higher than other ethnicities, and it is the 3rd leading cause of death of our women. These numbers only reflect the number of known incidents, there are so many incidents that are not reported accurately or reported at all.
As I mentioned the Red Dress Special required the participants to wear a red dress since red is the official color of the #MMIW campaign. Red, as a color, also holds a special cultural significance for a lot of tribal communities. Mrs. Nora Dial-Stanley, Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, spoke on behalf of the committee for the special. Before the special began all the male traditional dancers were asked to come into the arena and to stand around the perimeter. Mrs. Nora explained that these men are the warriors of our communities, they are our protectors. They were being asked dance along the parameter to provide support and protection for the women dancing in the special. (See photos below)
I found myself truly captivated by what was happening before my eyes as the Red Dress Special unfolded before me. The good medicine that was felt was truly moving in a way that it is hard to describe. There was a hushed feeling around the arena as hundreds of people watched the beautiful and graceful Indigenous dance. There was a feeling of pride seeing the men stand around the women, offering their protection and support.
The contest was structured into two rounds. The first round, all of the women danced two songs (one southern and one northern). I believe there were roughly 10 women out there, all from all dance categories. After they completed their 2nd song, the women were asked to line up facing away from the judges. The judges selected the top 5 dancers. The dancers shook hands and the top 5 prepared for their final song. The top five women spanned across all categories; women’s northern traditional, women’s jingle, women’s scrub, teen girls fancy and teen girls old style jingle. The women’s scrub dancer, Mrs. Verna Street, was declared the winner.
As I sit here writing this, I have goosebumps again. The same goosebumps that appeared as I watched, heard, and felt the beautiful power of all of those women dancing in their red dresses.
Thank you to the Carolina Indian Circle Powwow Committee and to all of the dancers who participated in this special.