Assistant Professor, Department of History, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, July, 2009-present.
LUMBEE INDIANS IN THE JIM CROW SOUTH has been living with me for over fifteen years, since I first wrote my undergraduate thesis on Henry Berry Lowrie, an important Recomstruction-era figure in Lumbee history. After that I took a big break from history to become a documentary film producer, but film only intensified my desires to use academic history as a storytelling medium that transcends the boundaries between the academy and the community. When I went back to get my PhD, I remained involved in documentary film, became a part-time theater producer, and began to think visually about historical storytelling, both in terms of narrative as well as argument. Oral tradition and artistic production, of course, has always been a tremendous part of Lumbee culture, so I could not ignore that, especially since I was writing about a relatively recent time period and many people who remember the people and events are still living. There were also plenty of compelling photographs, taken by both insiders and outsiders, that prompted fundamental questions about the documentary record. As I revised my dissertation into a book, I felt comfortable taking a few risks with voice and images to explicate questions of interest to academic historians but also to animate the narrative and give readers an insider look at the Lumbees.
I am extremely grateful to all my mentors, in filmmaking, in graduate school, at UNC Press, and at the First Peoples/New Directions publishing initiative for encouraging me on this path. But I have to give my greatest thanks to my family. Like my sister says,"the woman who taught me to read is a dangerous woman!" My mother, an English professor who taught everything from freshman composition to advanced grammar to world lit, taught me to read and remains my first and best writing teacher. My father, political radical in his own way (he would say"because I didn't know any better"), has always nurtured my iconoclastic tendencies while giving me a hefty dose of"respect your elders" training. Finally, my husband is a brilliant Lumbee musician and artist who lacks a formal education. He is not only a moral compass in my responsibilities to my community, but he gives me vital inspiration every day. He once said something which has become a kind of mantra for me in explaining Native attitudes towards history. A student interviewing him asked,"how did you learn Lumbee history?" He simply said,"I lived it."
The relevance of history to contemporary life is immediately obvious in the Lumbee case, since the categories of knowledge scholars have used to describe us have often been inadequate at best, and damaging at worst. For example, our 122-year struggle for federal recognition, and the political factionalism it has engendered, has been one of the layers of our identity but it is not the only facet of it. Some believe (and many scholars promote this idea) that Lumbee recognition is a struggle for identity, as if we don't know or don't understand our identities as an Indigenous People. This argument stems from a recognition of the several times our People have been subject to legislation which alters our tribal name. My book argues that this legislation, and the whole debate about the definition of"Indian," was motivated by the prerogatives of white supremacy and Indians' ambivalent relationship to it. But scholars (and more importantly, policy makers) have not looked to this explanation of the name changes, instead selectively revising our history to then justify our exclusion from the ranks of tribes who have government- to-government relationships with the United States. The Lumbee struggle is not for identity, but for sovereignty.
Another question about Lumbee history consistently involves our"origins." This is the question I get most often from the general public, and it also sums up the doubt expressed by anti-Indian interests in Congress and people who comment on websites and create Wikipedia entries on us. The argument goes that we're not real Indians and don't deserve federal recognition because we can't prove descent from a"historic" tribe, or that we don't look"Indian." While my book doesn't delve into this research extensively, it is plain that the Lumbees descend from a kin network of extended families, some of whom have had long-standing attachments to our current homeland in Robeson County, and some of whom migrated there in the 18th century. It is the relationship of people and place, and the development and maintenance of a coherent political and social organization, that makes us real Indians. Of course some of our ancestors are non-Indian; nearly every member of every tribe has non-Indian ancestors; it was a fact of colonization. And if you look at the so-called"historic" tribes (i.e. the ones you've heard of: Cherokees, Creeks, Seminoles, Navajos, Sioux, etc.), each one of them has a time in which they were called something else than what they are called now. To pretend that there is some kind of universal definition of a"historic" tribe against which Lumbees should be measured is to deny that Indian people can legitimately change and that colonization itself happened. It's a notion that hurts all of us as Indigenous people, and one that we can refute--to powerful effect on international Indigenous affairs--if we are all on the same epistemological page.
By Malinda Maynor Lowery
About Malinda Maynor Lowery
Assistant Professor, History and American Studies, Indiana University 2009-present.
I grew up in Macon, Georgia, a fall-line city carved out of Creek Indian country that became a major cotton depot. My high school was downtown, near a cluster of historic sites: the Cannonball House, so-named because of damage sustained during the Civil War; the 1916 Beaux Arts train station, with its reliquary of extra water foundations and bathrooms and waiting rooms; the home of Sidney Lanier, a poet, novelist, and critic who famously eulogized the Old South; the Douglass Theater which, throughout the Jim Crow era, featured entertainers including local greats like Little Richard and Otis Redding. Every day we passed a memorial of some kind, markers that begged us to consider the legacies of slavery, the Civil War, segregation, or some combination thereof. Substantial physical reminders were all around us, and they forced an ongoing dialog with our history. I doubt that any Maconite would argue that the past is past.
Towering literally over all these historic sites were the Ocmulgee mounds, remnants of a thousand-year-old Native city that had borne silent witness to a much longer scope of Southern history. The tallest mound was built atop a natural plateau, and seemed nearly twice as high as its fifty feet when viewed from the floodplain. When I was about eight years old, I went to summer day-camp there, and I remember trekking around the sweltering, miasmic bottomlands at the base the mounds, wondering about the lives of the chiefs who had lived atop them, including how they had managed without air conditioning. Growing up, this place seemed disjointed from the rest of my historical knowledge: I could connect the dots from the colony's eighteenth-century settlers to the living history museum at the Georgia Agorama, but Ocmulgee seemed an awe-inspiring outlier, a challenge to what I thought I knew about the place I grew up.
That challenge has continued to inspire me. Throughout the course of my education, I discovered, of course, that Ocmulgee is not an outlier. It was an early and particularly grand example of the Native chiefdoms that dominated the region prior to European colonization. The Creek or Muscogee Indians, whose ancestors built the site, carried its name with them to Indian Territory, now Oklahoma; their tribal government meets at Okmulgee in a contemporary building shaped like a mound. Indian Removal expelled the Creeks and many other Native peoples from their homelands, and so, too, did it largely erase them from the region's historical memory. When the cotton curtain descended, it obscured the history of an older South, a messier, less biologically determined one. But, as I wrote in my first book, these two Souths were never really separate, and Native people, like their neighbors, struggled with questions of identity and belonging, and the meaning and significance of race, slavery, and freedom. I'm grateful to all of my teachers, especially my hometown, for showing me the complexity and diversity of American history, for exposing its contested meanings and its enduring relevance to us all.
By Christina Snyder
About Christina Snyder