The figures may surprise the average newcomer: Wake County is home to more than 8,000 people who identify as American Indian — drawing from tribes around the country.
Looking further out, North Carolina has the nation’s largest native population east of the Mississippi River.
Still, for natives in the Triangle, it’s easy to feel invisible.
“You kind of get lost in the shuffle a bit,” said Dana Chavis, an attorney who grew up among the Lumbee tribe but attended high school, college and law school in the Triangle. “We’re all still here.”
Pow wow at Dix Park
On Saturday, tribes across North Carolina will gather for a pow wow expected to draw thousands to Dix Park in Raleigh — the first of its kind to get sponsorship from both the city and the park conservancy.
With the city’s financial backing and the park’s central Raleigh visibility, tribes hope to bring a new awareness of the state’s native culture and clout that smaller or rural pow wows could not bring.
“I think the pow wow brings us that visibility,” said Kerry Bird, board president for the Triangle Native American Society. “We’re often left out of the conversation because they think we’re in the past or there’s not enough of us.”
Running all day Saturday, the Dix Park Inter-Tribal Pow Wow is free and open to the public, featuring a tribal dance competition. Organizers prefer that attendees RSVP online to gauge crowd size, but it is not required.
North Carolina has eight recognized tribes across the state: the Coharie, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, the Haliwa-Saponi, the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, the Meherrin, the Sappony, the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation and the Waccamaw Siouan.
But of those, only the Cherokee have full federal recognition.
The Lumbee have long sought the same status, which seemed imminent in 2020 with support from President Joe Biden and then-President Donald Trump, but it ultimately failed to win Congressional approval.
Intertribal pow wow
While Triangle universities have held intertribal pow wows, Raleigh’s offers the chance for a wider, well-known venue with financial resources not usually available.
“An intertribal pow wow is a way to bring everybody together, be inclusive and celebrate tribal culture without being tribal specific,” said Christina Strickland Theodorou, an organizer with the Lumbee tribe. “It does help us express our heritage. It does help us say, ‘Hey, there are Native Americans that live here.’ ”
Despite the native population’s numbers, Bird said, they can be harder to recognize than other minority groups. Often, he said, those who identify as American Indian do so without people knowing their identity as readily as someone speaking Spanish or having a darker skin tone.
“When I meet new people,” Chavis said, “sometimes it turns into an educational experience.”
This story was originally published October 29, 2021 11:23 AM.