The Chapel Hill, North Carolina, community is mourning 19-year-old Faith Hedgepeth, a sophomore at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC-Chapel Hill) and a member of the Haliwa-Saponi Tribe.
Hedgepeth, a biology major attending school on a Gates Millennium scholarship, was found dead in her off-campus apartment at about 11 a.m. on Friday, September 7. Chapel Hill police have ruled the death a homicide.
“Apparent cause of death has not been determined,” Police Lt. Kevin Gunter wrote in a news release. “At this point in the investigation, police do not believe that this was a random act.”
Police have not said whether they have identified any suspects or made any arrests, Gunter wrote. The investigation is ongoing.
“She was a beautiful person,” said Faith’s sister, Rolanda Hedgepeth. “She was very smart, bubbly, cheerful, very caring. She loved kids, loved her family.”
Faith had plans to be a pediatrician and return to work with her tribe, her sister said. She was involved in many community programs and was a Fancy Dancer in pow wows.
“She also wanted to be a teacher,” Rolanda said of her sister. “Whatever she did, she was planning to come back and work in the area, with the tribe.”
More than 1,000 members of the Haliwa-Saponi Tribe gathered Sunday, September 9 to grieve Faith’s passing during an annual pow wow.
“Faith was a beautiful woman, a very active member of our tribe,” said Haliwa-Saponi Chief Ronald Richardson, who knew her from the time she was 13.
“She was the embodiment of innocence, the epitome and personification of life,” Richardson said. “Her smile was infectious. She was just an absolute joy to see. Although she was a mature young woman, every time I saw her, she gave me a big hug. She was such a girlie, bubbly type of person.”
News of Faith’s death stunned the close-knit tribal community, Richardson said. The Haliwa-Saponi Tribe is the third-largest American Indian tribe in North Carolina, comprising roughly 4,300 people living within a 10-mile radius.
“I am so deeply hurt,” he said. “Words cannot explain it. My heart hit the floor when I got the call, and this has been very hard. Her life was brutally cut short.”
Student groups on the university campus also are grieving Faith’s passing.
“We … are devastated by the loss of one of our own,” said AC Locklear, president of Carolina Indian Circle, an organization founded at UNC-CH in 1974 to meet the needs of American Indian students. The circle this year is serving more than 200 students from various tribes.
“Members of the circle have known Faith since she was a high school student,” Locklear told ICTMN. “She was determined to become a Tar Heel and by hard work she made it a reality. From the day she arrived on campus she was always willing to lend a helping hand and get involved in any way that she could.”
Faith was a member of Unheard Voices, an a cappella group on campus, and served as secretary of Carolina Indian Circle, Locklear said. She also was part of the planning committee for the circle’s annual powwow.
“The Native community and many UNC students were fortunate to have known such a caring individual,” Locklear said. “We will miss her smile and her ability to change your day with just a hug in passing on campus. The UNC community on a whole is close knit, but members of the circle and other Native Tar Heels know we are family and we will work to celebrate her life.”
UNC-Chapel Hill is the birthplace of the country’s first and largest American Indian sorority. The sorority’s chapter there, along with the university’s Native American organization, hosted a candlelight vigil Monday, September 10.
“Our hearts go out to Faith’s family and friends,” sorority Grand President Tonia Jacobs said in a prepared statement. “Although Faith was not a sister, she was close to many of our members and was a well-known member of the Native American community at UNC-Chapel Hill. She will be greatly missed.”
The family is seeking answers to the murder, Rolanda said.
“We’re praying for answers,” she said. “We’re praying the police do everything by the book and have a solid case so the person responsible for this is convicted and goes to prison.”
A wake for Faith was held Tuesday, September 11, followed by a funeral Wednesday at Mt. Bethel Baptist Church in Warrenton, North Carolina.
Faith’s high school classmates are planning a memorial service to be held tonight at 6 p.m. in the Warren County High School gymnasium in Front Royal, Virginia, reported the Daily Herald.
“It is our hope that the program will provide an opportunity for Faith’s classmates, friends and the WCHS staff to express their memories and feelings while beginning the healing process,” organizers told the Daily Herald.
Richardson said he wants to see support from other tribes and the community as a whole.
“I would like to see this kept alive until justice is served,” he said. “I would like to see other tribes join us in heightened awareness and remember Faith. When one of us falls, we all fall.”
The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees is offering a $25,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the person or persons responsible for Faith’s death.