As part of our ongoing series of “Voices at Carolina,” we will focus on American Indian voices this month in celebration of American Indian Heritage Month. According to the United States Census Bureau, “The first American Indian Day was celebrated in May 1916 in New York. The event culminated in an effort by Red Fox James, a member of the Blackfeet Nation, who rode across the nation on horseback seeking approval from 24 state governments to have a day to honor American Indians. In 1990, more than seven decades later, then-President George H.W. Bush signed a joint congressional resolution designating the month of November ‘National American Indian Heritage Month.'”
In the U.S., Native Americans are also known as American Indians, First Americans and Indigenous Americans (the U.S. defines Native Americans as Indigenous tribes that are originally from the contiguous U.S., along with Alaska Natives). Native Americans’ ancestry in the U.S. goes back at least 15,000 years. At the hands of European settlers in the 1600s, American Indians have suffered a history of violence and disruption, which forced them away from their ancestral land to federally designated reservations and the impact of this upheaval resonates today.
Nationally, there are 574 federally recognized tribes. The land on which UNC stands is their ancestral homeland of the Coharie, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, the Haliwa-Saponi, the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, the Meherrin, the Sappony, the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation and the Waccamaw Siouan — all of which are state-recognized, but only the Eastern Band of Cherokee are federally recognized. The Tuscarora, also a tribe in North Carolina, is not recognized by either the state or the federal government. Still, their numbers are low at UNC: only 111 American Indian/Alaska Native students are currently enrolled; only 318 are staff and only 16 are permanent full-time faculty (as of 2020). Students, faculty and staff have long felt a sense of isolation from this lack of visibility and presence (in response, a student video was created eight years ago, addressed the need with then-Chancellor Folt, for better understanding and support). This month, we provide space for several American Indian Tar Heels to generously share their own personal perspectives:
I cannot speak to what it is like to be an American Indian at Carolina. I can only speak from my own experience. I identify as an Indigenous woman who is an enrolled member of the Lumbee Tribe of NC. I am also Okinawan descended from the Indigenous islanders of Okinawa, Japan. What is it like to be a multiracial (American Indian and Japanese) Indigenous person at UNC? It’s complicated.
In the Lumbee community, people often ask, “Who’s your people?” This commonly used phrase is a way to relate to other Lumbee people while establishing a connection to the community and land. To answer this question is to say, “I belong.”
Who are my people? I am the daughter of David Lambert and the granddaughter of Willie and Bessie. My grandparents lived on the edge of the Prospect community at the intersection across from the Collins and Sons corner store and feed mill. My grandmother was a lifelong member of Sycamore Hill Church. My dad still lives off Oxendine School Road. Where is home? When I close my eyes and think of “home,” I see the long winding country roads, tobacco fields, and pine trees that cover Robeson County – home of the Lumbee people. I reflect back on summers spent at my grandparents’ house where we picked and processed our own produce while Southern gospel music played in the background. I remember the taste of homemade biscuits and fresh peaches after a hard day’s work, Sunday dinners attended by my large extended family, and grape ice cream on the 4th of July.
I was raised Lumbee. I know myself as both Lumbee and Okinawan. The world sees me as “half-blood” or “something else.” To know that I belong in multiple spaces, but not truly feel like I am accepted in either is complicated or was incredibly isolating. My first two years at UNC were marked by imposter syndrome, depression, anxiety, and countless physical ailments – the accumulated and compounded impact of a lifetime of you are “too much” of one thing, “not enough” of another, and “what are you?” My Native peers often talked about the difficulty of walking in two worlds – the Native world in their home communities and the predominantly white world at UNC. I felt like I had to run a daily marathon through multiple worlds, make good grades, work a part-time job, manage family responsibilities, and hold leadership positions in multiple student organizations. It was exhausting. I eventually found myself with great grades, an impressive resume, but lost with no direction and completely burned out. I left UNC two semesters shy of graduation.
In my time away from UNC, I committed to learning about myself and all of my identities. I found inspiration in reading about great American Indian female leaders. I adopted a more holistic approach to taking care of myself. I learned to accept myself as a whole person – I am both Lumbee AND Okinawan – I am more than the sum of my parts.
Fast forward, I have completed both my undergraduate and graduate education at UNC. I have adopted an Indigenous worldview that allows me to view my life and work through a lens that is holistic, relational, and interconnected. I apply this lens in my work with the many diverse UNC students that I serve. As I look across the campus, I see that we are all deeply connected. I believe that as a community, the whole is more valuable than its many parts. Every person has a purpose. Everyone is worthy of respect, dignity, and care. We all have a role in providing a brave space where each person can reach their full potential. What an awesome responsibility! What an honor and privilege to do this work in this place!
Have you ever heard the saying about a fish not knowing they are in water because that’s what they are always surrounded by? It’s an interesting thing to ponder. Well, I am not sure I fully understood the saying growing up, but I came to find out at a very pivotal point in my life that I was most definitely the fish.
Growing up in Robeson County, North Carolina is unique. I don’t say that just because most people in the Triangle have never set foot in Robeson County, except to fill up their gas tanks on I-95. Rather, it’s unique because of the people. Specifically, the indigenous population of which I am a member. The Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina is rooted in Robeson County and anyone who lives there understands the connection between the tribe and the place itself. It’s home and once you hit those county lines, you feel the warmth, familiarity and connection. From growing up on the edge of town in Pembroke to living out my high school days in Lumberton, I really felt a deep connection to the place, but also a deep urge to explore life beyond the county lines. What better way to do that than leaving home for college? Remember that part about the fish and the water? This is where I realized I was the fish.
Attending a predominantly white institution (PWI) is always interesting for BIPOC people and in the pursuit of my degrees, I have attended two. One thing that hit me like a tub of grape ice cream (for my Lumbee folk who get that) is that outside of my home county, the area I grew up, I will always be a fish out of water. I thought that the way I was understood and perceived at home would follow me wherever I went. I was wrong. It took years to really understand the impact it had on me; to notice the tokenization that occurs and the adverse effects of leaving your place and your people. I looked around in every residence hall, classroom, office around my campuses and felt alone. Was I truly alone? No, I made friends, had support and honestly had a great college experience, but I was isolated. Even now, as I work here at Chapel Hill, I feel this way from time to time. I can’t speak for all Lumbee and certainly not for all Native people, but I sense that they understand this feeling. It can be mentally and emotionally exhausting when you realize that you may go days, weeks or months without interacting with someone like you; someone who understands you.
I distinctly remember a few key moments in my journey that restored my connection with my home. The first was during grad school. I was able to come home for a few days and attend the tribe’s fish fry and that weekend, seeing my family, old friends and my homeland truly “recharged my batteries.” A little while later, I was able to attend the Carolina Indian Circle’s (CIC) Pow Wow; something I had done many years for a good portion of my life, as my dad was a member of CIC during his Carolina years. While I was seeing some old faces and some new, roughly 100 miles from my home, I got the same feeling as I did when I was at visiting relatives back in Pembroke. The connection was here too, despite not being within those Robeson County lines. Then I remembered, I am a fish out of water, but so are all of these people and while we may be outside of the land where we feel that direct feeling of home, our connection as Native people has immense power. The power to make anywhere feel like home when we are in the presence of each other.
Just like being a student, being a BIPOC employee at a PWI also has its challenges, but that relationship with my Native colleagues and Native students gives me a purpose here beyond the boundaries of my job description: to simply be myself: An indigenous man. A member of the Lumbee Tribe. A product of Robeson County. Someone with the ability to provide that connection between Native peoples to those who seek it. And yes, still be a fish out of my original water, but with the knowledge and comfort that there are other fish like me bringing a little a bit of our water wherever we go.
ᏏᏲ, ᎣᏏᏉᏧ? Siyo, osigwotsu? Halito, chim achukma? Hello, how are you? This concise introduction has many layers of meaning, some obvious and others not so obvious. My name is Frankie Bauer, and I am an enrolled member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. I ought to mention that my name is Hiloha in Chahta anumpa and ᎠᏴᏓᏆᎶᏍᎩ Ayvdaqualosgi in ᏣᎳᎩ Tsalagi (Cherokee).
The meanings for using my Native language seem more pertinent today than when I started my quest for a PhD. Language is a central core to Native American nations, and I try to engage with this part of my culture as much as I can. At UNC-Chapel Hill, I was blessed to be a part of the small, but strong, community of American Indian students, faculty, and non-Natives who are considered great allies. In Dr. Benjamin Frey’s Cherokee language classes here at UNC-Chapel Hill, and my time learning language in Cullowhee, North Carolina, among the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, I learned some Cherokee myself. However, Chahta sia hoke (I am Choctaw).
I was not fortunate enough to grow up in the Choctaw Nation speaking Chahta as I was born in California, but I know and feel the loss of my Native inheritance every day. My culture inherited from my sʋshki (my mother) is something that I am still trying to reclaim through language learning and by practicing relationality. The Choctaw Nation would not be what it is today if we had not persisted and preserved our identity throughout our interactions with foreign nations. My mother’s family is originally from Indian Territory (Oklahoma), near a small unincorporated community named Frogville in the Choctaw Nation.
As a Native graduate student, I feel proud to be Chahta and achieve what I know my ancestors could have, if not for settler colonialism. As November is known to be National Native American Heritage Month, many Native American people are struggling due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the yearly Halloween barrage of misappropriation (please, no Pocahontas or whatever settlers dress up as nowadays), and the celebration of Pequot friendship and all things turkey at Thanksgiving. So, with all that being said, I would like to ask everyone at Carolina to have good intentions this year and potentially learn some Native histories or languages this November. The month of November is usually a contested time for Native people, and the least we can collectively do is acknowledge our continued presence and learn about our beautiful culture respectfully. At Carolina, there is a vibrant Native American presence for those that will see it. I hope our future is as bright as my ribbon shirt and sounds as clear as turtle shell shakers. Gali’eliga! Achukma hoke!
Yakoke! Sgi! ᏍᎩ! ᏩᏙ!
“When did you first realize your racial identity?” I use this question as a prompt for students to compose their racial autobiographies in EDUC 727: The Social Context of Educational Leadership, a required course for aspiring school leaders. The purpose of the assignment is for students to examine how race has manifested in their lives as a process to unearth assumptions and biases that shape their worldviews and epistemologies.
As a Lumbee Indian raised in Wakulla, a rural community in Robeson County, my response to this question is the very reason I use it in a course for future principals. My formative years were exclusively Native. Oxendine Elementary School, where my mother worked for much of my childhood, and Cherokee Chapel Church, where her body was laid to rest, were both built by Lumbees and to this day, are occupied by Lumbees (It is important to note that Robeson County, like most rural communities after forced integration, maintains de facto segregation in churches and neighborhoods). Stories from my childhood included the night the Lumbees ambushed the KKK just outside of Maxton and the legend of Henry Berry Lowry, who led a gang to resist the White man’s rule after the Civil War. These teachings, and others like them, glorify our resolve and self-determination, legitimize our Native ways of knowing and being, and counter the dominant narratives that glorify whiteness and assign nobility to U.S. forefathers.
Not until my formal education at Peterson Elementary School do I recall being consciously aware of my racial identity, of what it meant to be Lumbee. Not until then did I realize that to be Lumbee was to not be White. By 4th grade, I had become socialized to assign meaning to race in a way that positioned me and those who looked and sounded like me in a social hierarchy. Unlike Oxendine or nearby Prospect Elementary, Peterson Elementary was triracial. Teachers, most of whom were White, assigned me to reading groups, corrected spelling quizzes, and on a few occasions, slapped the palm of my hand with a ruler for talking too much. While I do not believe that the methods my teachers employed were racially motivated, I do think that they were a part of a system of education that worked for them and that they replicated the methods of that system accordingly.
More than skin tone, geography, or even faith, is a distinctive ethnic marker that distinguishes our people. Lumbee English is an ethnic dialect that deviates from standard English in vocabulary, pronunciation, and grammar. Coupled with tribally contextualized values and understandings, speaking and writing in one’s native tongue conflicted with conventional academic criteria, thus schooling became a dilemma. While it only took one attempt to “correct” my granny’s word choice for me to realize that leaving my grammar lesson at school was in my self-interest, I struggled to reconcile feelings of betrayal that came with “talking white.” Realizing that advancement meant that I must learn how to appeal to a White audience has psychological implications that persist into adulthood.
Perhaps this is what led me to educational leadership, to practice leadership in racially, linguistically diverse schools and districts, to conduct research that recognizes the experiences of Native students in predominantly White, research-intensive universities, and since joining the faculty in the School of Education, to support other Lumbee scholars on their respective journeys. My racialized journey compels me to decenter whiteness in the content I present, to incorporate counternarratives and storytelling pedagogies, and to create safe spaces for students to be vulnerable and transparent about their own identities.