The sound of drum beats, accompanied by Native American dancers in full native regalia and engaging in tribal chants, could be considered unusual in Mount Airy.
But such scenes were common during the weekend at Veterans Memorial Park, where the Veterans Pow Wow was held for the fourth year with proceeds to aid former military members and families in need.
Native American culture was richly displayed at the three-day event that concluded Sunday, including authentic headdresses, music, art, crafts, music and dancing — a spectacle of color and pageantry melded by a general feeling of unity among people of various tribes.
“As Native Americans, we share a culture,” explained Emerson Begay of Kingsport, Tennessee, a member of the Navajo Nation who was in native dress, complete with face paint. He said the annual pow wow in Mount Airy is part of a larger movement that includes similar events held regularly in many states.
The dances and other activities that are part of those gatherings “keep me in touch with my tradition and spirituality,” Begay said of how the events allow him to stay connected with his roots as well as maintaining that tradition among society as a whole.
True to its definition as a social gathering among different American Indian communities, this weekend’s pow wow (derived from a Narragansett tribe word meaning “spiritual leader”) brought people together from many areas.
“We respect each other’s traditions,” Begay said of the different factions that assemble at such events.
Meanwhile, to Jason Standing Wolf, a member of the Lakota tribe from Danville, Virginia — whose elaborate Native American garb included a headdress adorned by a wolf’s head — pow wows are all about “community.”
“Everybody getting together,” he said. “And we’re here for one basic reason: to dance and give thanks to the Creator.”
One way in which this was accomplished Saturday was through intertribal dancing.
“Intertribal dances are for anybody to come to dance,” described Terrell Anquoe, master of ceremonies for the pow wow. “These are social dances.”
As Anquoe spoke, about 20 members of different tribes moved slowly in a large circle on the park grounds to the beat of several drummers pounding a large tom-tom.
Just as visible as the Native American influences at the West Lebanon Street venue were stations manned by groups dedicated to veterans.
Among the organizations represented were the Military Order of the Purple Heart, the Marine Corps League and the Rolling Thunder motorcycle group that seeks to bring full accountability for prisoners of war (POWs) and missing in action (MIA) service personnel. Members were on hand to solicit donations and spread awareness.
Native Americans and the military share a long and important heritage, according to David Taylor of King, a Vietnam veteran who is commander of Chapter 638 of the Military Order of the Purple Heart. It’s a group composed of service members who have been awarded that decoration because of war wounds.
Taylor said Native Americans, though known as adversaries of the U.S. government, especially during the 1800s, eventually became heavily assimilated in the nation’s fabric, including serving in the military.
“People have no idea how much they contributed,” he said of that aspect, pointing to acts of service such as that performed by code talkers.
Code talking was pioneered by Cherokee and Choctaw Indians during World War I as a communications trick to stymie the enemy unfamiliar with Native American languages, and was continued in World War II.
While that was a high-profile function, native peoples have served their country’s military in numerous other ways not as well known.
“They do not get recognized a lot for what they’ve contributed,” Taylor said.
He said events such as this weekend’s pow wow help ex-service members overall through the proceeds generated.
“We’ve got so many veterans and veterans’ families, I guess the term would be falling through the cracks — not getting help they need,” the commander of the Purple Heart organization said.
Those folks sometimes find themselves homeless or struggling to meet basic expenses — facing hardships for “a hundred different reasons,” Taylor said.
The Native Americans gathered at Veterans Memorial Park seemed eager to help while promoting their own heritage.
“We’re just here to have a good time and honor our veterans,” Anquoe said, adding that they “have my respect for sure.”
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.