One recent morning, as I stepped onto a footbridge, a huge tree trunk carved flat on its upper side and laid across a shallow stream slipping into the nearby Eno River, I heard drums playing and the voices of women raised in joyful song. Pillars of smoke rose from inside the Occaneechi Village, just off the main street of Hillsborough, where the local natives, Indians and others, had gathered to celebrate the reconstruction of the tribal compound that stood near here in pre-Colonial times. The sweet smell of wood smoke tinged the air, crisp with autumn's chill.
The work of artisans was displayed all around: silver jewelry; pots and belts covered with intricate beadwork; and arrows, hatchets and lances decorated with striped feathers. A woman silently wove a cylindrical basket, while next to her a man dressed in leather extolled the virtues of using pine bark and hemp to make sturdy ropes. Women pulled steaming ears of corn from the coals of a fire above which roasted a turkey on a spit. But this celebration was not about commerce.
In the center of the circular village, surrounded on all sides by tall spikes cut from saplings and webbed together with vines, sat a huge communal drum, its open heart covered by a sturdy skin of beautiful brown leather. Men, young and old, gathered to pound out rhythms. First one and then the rest sang out passionately as they drummed, and the women joined in. Two young girls danced around one of the thatched huts, tossing their blankets over their heads like herons soaring on multicolored wings, while a smaller girl practiced her first shy dance steps nearby.
I closed my eyes and let the voices take me away. Something went through me, like a current of fire in my veins. The courthouse disappeared, along with the cars, the stoplights and the noise of the nearby city. It was only us--this small tribe and their friends--gathered here on the lip of this river, free to wander where we pleased, to settle where we liked, making peace with our neighbors, taking our very life from these woods.
When the singing stopped, John Blackfeather, leader of the Occaneechi, thanked his guests for coming to share in the dance. With reverence in his voice, he said, "It has been 250 years since the drum has been heard in this place." He and Warren Perkinson, the lead drummer, a huge handsome man with a beaded headband, spoke for a while of their favorite songs, and the young men who were just beginning to learn the intertribal cadences listened attentively. Blackfeather insisted how important it is for these far-flung people to remind others, and most especially themselves, that "we are still here, we still survive, and we're still strong."
I stood to go, taking with me the slender arrow with a quill of wild turkey feathers and a tip carved from buffalo horn, that I'd bought earlier from Blackfeather. "Hey, that's my favorite arrow," he said. "Look at the split." I turned the arrow over and, sure enough, there was a 3-inch gash in the shaft. When I looked up with a question in my eye, he laughed. "It's a whistle." Walking back to my truck, I hummed one of my favorite hymns, "There's a sweet, sweet spirit in this place," and shunned the asphalt to walk gently through the browning grass.