Brooke Simpson and Faith Hedgepeth were second-cousins, Native Americans with ancestral roots extending deep into the red clays of eastern North Carolina bordering the Virginia line.
As girls, they both called small-town Hollister home.
Two years apart, the babies were both born into the Haliwa-Saponi tribe.
On Monday, Simpson, 26, sang a soulful rendition of “Amazing Grace” to an audience of millions as a contestant on the 13th season of NBC’s hit television show “The Voice.”
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She’ll learn Tuesday if she advances to the next round.
It sounds like a dream.
Any dreams Hedgepeth had ended Sept. 7, 2012, when she was found beaten to death in her off-campus apartment.
Five days after her murder, a coffin decorated by white roses and black ribbon left the back of a hearse.
Hedgepeth would be 25 years old.
Where her college friends have grown up and moved on with their lives, Hedgepeth’s Facebook picture still shows a pretty, 19-year-old UNC junior forever hoping to graduate with a degree in biology.
Her highly publicized, still-unsolved murder greatly affected the whole Haliwa-Saponi.
Simpson’s nationally broadcast success on “The Voice” has excited and cheered the community.
In recent weeks, tribal members have held weekly watch parties to see her sing. They’ve grouped in their homes and set up live-streams to play on projectors underneath carports, at community centers and once on pow-wow grounds known as “The Meadows.”
Like the rest of the tribe, Roland Hedgepeth, Faith’s father, has been watching.
“For a long time, sadly to say, Faith has kind of been the community hero, so to speak – heroine, or, however you want to pronounce it,” Hedgepeth said.
“And now – they haven’t forgotten her or anything – it’s just that now, they have somebody else,” he said. “A living hero.”
The Haliwa-Saponi community is tight-knit. Sixty-two percent of the approximately 4,300 enrolled tribal members live in Halifax and Warren counties.
“When you get around Hollister, it’s hard to know people who aren’t related,” Hedgepeth said. “Either closely, or distant.”
It seems “unreal” to Hedgepeth that over 2,500 people attended his daughter’s funeral, given that the ceremony was held on a Wednesday when many mourners otherwise would have been at jobs.
“We stand behind each other 100 percent, whether in a positive light, like with what is happening with Brooke, or whether in a sad time, with what has happened with Faith,” said Sharon Harris Berrun, Faith’s first-cousin. “In both instances, with Brooke and Faith, whether we’re blood related or not, we feel like we have a connection.
“Because, we’re the same people,” Berrun said.
‘That litle girl’
Instead of a city manager, the Haliwa-Saponi tribe has a tribal administrator, Archie Lynch. He was having breakfast at a local favorite, a grill called Cleo’s.
“I said, ‘What are you talking about?’” Lynch recalled.
“I said, ‘You’re crazy. … You mean that little girl, who’s in school up there at UNC? I’ve known her, her whole life.’
Lynch believes some gloom lingers among the Haliwa-Saponi.
“It’s probably not over for people,” Lynch said. “People got tattoos, because it was that important – I guess. It’s still like, ‘Why can’t they find anybody?’”
The Chapel Hill police have interviewed nearly 2,000 people and collected more than 100 DNA samples for its investigation. Every year on the anniversary of Faith’s death, Police Chief Chris Blue reaffirms that it’s not a matter of “if” a culprit will be found but “when.
Efforts to reach Simpson for this story through NBC and family members were unsuccessful.
Many Haliwa-Saponi have taken joy in seeing her represent their tribe and culture during her televised performances, Berrun said. Her likeness is printed on T-shirts worn by supporters around Halifax County.
Last week, Simpson sang Pink’s song “What About Us” wearing traditional, beaded earrings in front of monitors displaying Native American weavings.
“Native American people have been through so much and often we are forgotten,” she wrote on Facebook the next day. “ I’m so proud to play a small role in shedding light on us and our culture.”
During rehearsals, Simpson described a childhood with Sundays spent singing in churches with her mother and father – Jimille and Mike Mills – who are “full-time” evangelists. Her Monday night performance of the Christian hymn “Amazing Grace” garnered high praise from show judges.
One judge, Jennifer Hudson, commented, “Woo child, girl ... the spirit is universal. Your heart. Not only your beautiful gift, but to sing from a place like that, to touch our hearts the way you just did, in your own way, from your own culture.”
Simpson’s ‘Voice’ coach Miley Cyrus said, “Brooke has the biggest voice in this competition.”
Roland Hedgepeth calls Simpson and her family “good people.”
But, he can’t find too much solace in entertainment, or anything anymore. Because, nothing takes his mind off his daughter for very long on any day.
“In reality, sometimes, I wish there was something that would help take my mind off of her,” he said. “I miss her terribly. I miss her terribly every day.”