Under a handful of canopy tents encircling Dix Park’s massive open field Saturday morning, Nina Martinez and her entourage were busy.
In less than an hour, they’d join a group of nearly 100 dancers in a welcome ceremony to kick off the 2023 Inter-Tribal Pow Wow, a gathering of Native Americans from across North Carolina and several adjoining states. But before they made their way to the dance circle, there was clothing to be fitted, holes in moccasins to be repaired — all in an oppressive heat headed for the upper 90s.
“When they say it takes a village, that might as well be our motto,” said Martinez, clothed in flowing, deep blue regalia adorned with floral needlework designed for women’s traditional dance.
She made the trip to Raleigh from Fayetteville Saturday morning with relatives, friends and students, all affiliated in one way or another with the Cumberland County Culture Class, a youth-oriented program to deepen awareness and understanding of Native American traditions, including dance.
What started as a space for five or so indigenous students has grown into regular meetings of between 30 and 50, said Nakoma Maiden, Martinez’s husband and culture class founder.
At the pow wow Saturday, dancers affiliated with the class ranged from young children and teenagers to adults, including Martinez and Maiden, registered to compete in a handful of different styles. Now in its third year, the celebration at Dix Park is established enough to become part of a circuit of Native American dance competitions held across the state and country, normally running from spring to fall.
The summertime, Martinez said, means traveling to pow wows like these almost every weekend — with similar-sized showings from participants in the culture class.
“We usually roll real deep,” Martinez said with a laugh.
Winners in pow wow dance competitions can take home cash prizes — several hundred dollars in the case of the event at Dix.
But Martinez, who’s affiliated with the Haliwa-Saponi, Apache and Yaqui tribes, says the pow wows are also about reclaiming, sharing and protecting indigenous traditions, many of which are in danger of being lost or forgotten. They also serve to ensure new generations can connect the past to the present.
Watching her 12-year-old son Cristian compete Saturday, she noted the point when he interspersed more traditional movement with Michael Jackson’s signature moonwalk. She saw the same sort of thing when she was 13 and 14 watching traditional grass dancers.
“I remember some of them Harlem Shaking,” she said, noting that the dances evolve with the broader culture. “It’s living. It’s breathing.”
As the afternoon wore on, and the heat index exceeded 100 degrees, another member of the culture class rushed to don Maiden’s meticulously beaded and feathered attire for the “switch dance” — when women and men trade regalia and compete in each other’s styles.
As 15-year-old Bella Goins moved to the rhythm of the drum circle booming a cadence across the field, flashing in Maiden’s own blue, orange and yellow, at least a dozen of her friends and family stood on the circle’s sidelines to cheer her on.
“She’s doing better than you,” one girl told Maiden with a grin.
It was clear he didn’t mind the dig.
Turning back to the tent to finish the preparations for his own switch dance, his face was lit up with a smile.
“That was great,” he said.