The Era of Covid-19 Among the Haliwa-Saponi: With The Annual Pow-wow Postponed, Tribes Are Adjusting In the Age of COVID-19

Past Haliwa Saponi Powwow, NC

Like many other tribes in Indian Country, the Haliwa-Saponi Indian Tribe’s annual pow-wow is their biggest event. As soon as it ends, planning begins for the next year’s pow-wow. So needless to say, it truly takes a village to make it work. The event is held the 3rd weekend each April, and by February 2020, the final details of this year’s pow-wow were announced. This also came at the same time that the mysterious virus COVID-19 had made its way to the United States.

Each day it seemed the news got grimmer and grimmer. The virus was spreading rather quickly; folks were getting sick on cruise ships, travel bans were being placed in countries. However, Americans still were not taking it seriously.

On March 3, 2020, the first case was announced in North Carolina. Murmurs began to spread that a government shutdown was coming, but no one really knew how long this situation would last.

On March 16th, the Haliwa-Saponi Tribal Council made one of the hardest decisions in recent memory- they decided to postpone their 55th Annual Pow-wow until further notice.

Within a few days, it became apparent that the tribe had made the right decision.

The number of cases in the United States was growing faster than ragweed on a summer day. The death toll also was increasing and an element of fear came over so many. This was especially true in Native American communities that have suffered from poor health issues, low access to resources, and have experienced similar outbreaks, such as small pox.

By the time of this writing, there were almost 3,500 cases, with over 50 people having succumbed to the disease in 90 of the 100 counties of North Carolina.  There have been over 40,000 tests given, but many others who have requested the test have been refused, so these numbers may not actually reflect the total number of cases.

The Haliwa-Saponi tribe is tucked between Halifax and Warren Counties, in rural NC. Being in a rural setting is considered a blessing and a curse. A blessing because most people have space between homes, allowing social distancing to prevail. A curse because of the lack of resources within close proximity: there is a Dollar General, a produce stand, a few convenient stores, and a tribal clinic and pharmacy. While there are some of these resources within the tribal community, many have to travel at least 20 miles to the nearest city for a larger selection of goods they need or want.

Then, in the midst of COVID-19 spreading across the world, the virus found its way into the tribal community of Hollister.

Around March 26th, a tribal member posted on Facebook that they were not feeling well. With chills and sweats as symptoms, they scheduled a doctor’s appointment the next day. Upon arriving at the doctor’s office, they were immediately transported to the Rocky Mount hospital, almost 30 minutes away, by ambulance. At this time, they were tested for the virus, and got news the following day that they had tested positive for COVID-19.

Because this tribal member had been taken to the hospital by ambulance, some relatives who happened to be in the area offered to give them a ride home.

When it became apparent that the virus was within the Haliwa-Saponi tribal community, time seemed to slow down. More questions than answers came. Who do you call? Who do you tell? What can you do, and how can you help? The emotions ran from anger to sadness to questioning faith.

After several days of murmurs in the community, this tribal member addressed the issue head-on with a post on Facebook. They stated they had gotten the virus from attending a gathering a few weeks before from a person that did not know they were carrying the virus, and that they were self-isolating for 2 weeks. The other family members, who were also exposed, followed suit, and encouragement was given that anyone who felt sick to please ask for a test and pay attention to their symptoms.

Within 2 days, over 25 people were affected by this one situation and were self-isolating for two weeks. This boiled down to about 10 households.

That’s how quickly it happens, that’s how quickly it spreads, and no one race or people are immune. Being a novel virus, it was first announced that the elderly and those with compromised immune systems were most vulnerable, but over time, COVID-19 showed it did not discriminate. Regardless of age, health or location, COVID-19 affects us all.

Native communities are especially vulnerable to this invisible enemy, with many pre-existing conditions already being rampant for members- heart disease, diabetes and cancer are currently the leading causes of death for these communities.

There is no cure for COVID-19 to date, but some drugs have been discussed and heavily promoted. It is important that before any drug is taken that you have a conversation with your physician.

With heart disease, obesity, diabetes and depression highly visible in Native American and other minority groups, it is important to pay attention to all drugs that may be prescribed to your loved ones.

The best advice given during this time is to assume you already have the virus and act accordingly. Avoid contact, such as handshaking, even high fiving. Wear gloves and masks if you go out in public, wash your hands often and stay inside for the next few weeks, only going out for essentials. Keep a distance of 6 feet apart from your neighbor. When you purchase your produce, wash everything thoroughly. This will be the only way to slow the spread.

For additional information, visit the following websites:

Tribal members who were affected by COVID-19 have seemingly recovered, but attention is still being paid to their health.

The Haliwa-Saponi are looking forward to holding their pow-wow later this year, if possible, but want to remind everyone their pow-wow is scheduled each year for the 3rd weekend in April. Come and celebrate once the date is announced, for it will be a joyous time.

Know that we will get past this. It is not promised that we will ever get back to the normal that we knew. Just know that we are not alone and are in this together. Let’s pray, and work hard to fight this invisible enemy and prevail on the other side.


A. Kay Oxendine is from the Haliwa-Saponi and has been writing since she was eight. She just published her first two novels in 2019, and is working on her third, and has a set of children’s books about her family.

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