Today is Indigenous People’s Day, and we welcome a guest post from Malinda Maynor Lowery, author of The Lumbee Indians: An American Struggle, just published by UNC Press.
Jamestown, the Lost Colony of Roanoke, and Plymouth Rock are central to America’s mythic origin stories. Then, we are told, the main characters–the “friendly” Native Americans who met the settlers–disappeared. But the history of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina demands that we tell a different story. As the largest tribe east of the Mississippi and one of the largest in the country, the Lumbees have survived in their original homelands, maintaining a distinct identity as Indians in a biracial South. In this passionately written, sweeping work of history, Malinda Maynor Lowery narrates the Lumbees’ extraordinary story as never before. Their fight for full federal acknowledgment continues to this day, while the Lumbee people’s struggle for justice and self-determination continues to transform our view of the American experience.
The Lumbee Indians is available now in both print and ebook editions.
A Nation of Nations
My Lumbee Indian community is a kind of microcosm of what the United States has been and could be. Every year we celebrate Independence Day at our weeklong Lumbee Homecoming celebration in southeastern North Carolina. We have beauty pageants, a powwow, gospel music performances, a parade, sports events, and collard sandwiches (one of our local delicacies). American flags fly everywhere, and our military veterans receive places of honor at every event. Family reunions abound. During Homecoming, Lumbees celebrate what we share with our non-Indian neighbors, alongside what makes us unique. We don’t fret over whether multiculturalism and national unity can co-exist. We value individual self-expression as well as shared land and values, which gives our Homecoming a distinct multicultural and regional flavor. This year’s Junior Miss Lumbee and Teen Miss Lumbee sang the most striking version of the national anthem I had ever heard. They arranged it in perfect harmony; their tribute to our fight for independence resonated not just with the American nation but with our own Lumbee nation.
The long lens of American Indian history reveals not only our nation’s consistent sins, but our consistent work to make this a more free and equal nation, especially when families are the focus.
American Indian nations did not need Europeans to teach us about family values, independence, or freedom. But we can’t forget that Europeans and some of their descendants have repeatedly tried to teach us about exclusion and betrayal. The descendants of Jamestown, Plymouth, St. Augustine, and other early illegal migrants established their own laws about immigration without gaining permission from the indigenous nations into which they had entered.
American Indians, of course, have strong feelings about this. When 9/11 launched our current chapter of xenophobia, a t-shirt circulated at powwows and festivals throughout the United States. It depicted Gohklayeh (Mexicans named him Geronimo) and his warriors along with a slogan: “Homeland Security: Fighting Terrorism Since 1492.” It was a funny way to point out the hypocrisy that has vexed U.S. immigration policy. But it also didn’t capture the typical pattern of American Indians’ relationships with these illegal immigrants.
Europeans may not have consulted Indians about immigration, but Indians had a degree of input nevertheless. They could make newcomers into kin or into enemies, and they did far more of the former than the latter. When faced with difference, we haven’t always separated ourselves and excluded others. We’ve spent much longer embracing, marrying, and building families, binding our blood with that of newcomers.
When Virginia’s Native leaders sent a girl named Matoaka (her nickname was Pocahontas) to provide the English settlers with corn and other food to help them through their first winter, it was probably a routine gesture to new neighbors who were clearly suffering. A few years later, as the English struggled to adapt, they repaid their neighbors’ kindness by kidnapping Matoaka and demanding more corn for a ransom. She stayed with the English thereafter; we don’t know if she did so willingly or was forced. They baptized her and re-named her Rebecca, after the Hebrew woman who kept “two nations” in her womb, embodied in the twins Esau and Jacob.
There are hundreds of documented events where Natives helped Europeans, but not usually as simplistic gestures. Matoaka’s father, Powhatan, led a large confederation of smaller nations, and he practiced diplomacy and war with other indigenous nations—the Iroquois, the Tuscarora, and many others. He understood hospitality as a rule of diplomacy and peaceful international relations. If he wanted to maintain his authority in his complex world, he needed to exercise generosity in dealing with outsiders.
When those outsiders broke the law, Powhatan first tried adopting them—the speculation that Matoaka saved John Smith’s life may have, in fact, been her playing a prescribed role in a ceremony that naturalized Smith and the English as members of Powhatan’s confederacy. Only when the English again betrayed their agreements did violence emerge.
Americans today forget that laws exist to promote harmony between people of various beliefs and attitudes; they don’t simply establish individual rights or the power of one group over another. When faced with the sudden and unbidden flow of immigrants he had to manage, Powhatan seemed to have a better grasp on this concept.
Instead of remembering American Indian acts of hospitality as establishing the foundational ethics of the nation, European descendants have chosen to interpret American Indians’ desire to make strangers into family as naïve, as if they were easily duped into complying with an inevitable takeover. Americans are more comfortable with Geronimo’s form of homeland security; they wish to believe that they would have handled unwanted immigration with guns, not generosity. Perhaps this mis-remembering means that they too are afraid of being viewed as weak if they are hospitable.
Yet our families are our strength. Like the immigrants who have traveled to our shores for hundreds of years, American Indians want to continue keeping our families together. In family we nurture the kind of blood that binds, rather than separates. While this has been a nation of violence, this country has also been a place to escape the horrors of war, to rebuild families, to create economic security. As a Lumbee Indian, I’m proud of that; it’s one of the most important, enduring ways we see our own values reflected in American life. Lumbee Homecoming reminds us that America’s truth, and its future, lies in Rebecca’s womb, not Geronimo’s gun.
Malinda Maynor Lowery (Lumbee) is associate professor of history and director of the Center for the Study of the American South at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is the author of Lumbee Indians in the Jim Crow South. Follow her on Twitter at @malindalowery. You can read her previous UNC Press blog posts/mentions here.