South Writ Large: Recognizing Lumbee History through Land

Distributed for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Center for the Study of the American South, South Writ Large: Stories from the Global South is an anthology of articles published over the past ten years in the online magazine South Writ Large, featuring personal essays, articles, poetry, and artwork that explores the culture of the U.S. South and its extensive connections to other regions of the world.

The following excerpted essay featured in the anthology is by Malinda Maynor Mowery.

Recognizing Lumbee History through Land

Lumbee history begins with the stories we tell about family and land. Those stories cannot be told apart from one another, for each gives the other meaning. Even as these elements reinforce each other, our history is also infused with contradictions, opposing forces that we must hold together in a tender kind of tension. Lumbees have built our nation to withstand these contradictions; we have learned that trying to erase them only reinforces the power of some at the expense of others.

Actually, land is hardly the right term for the Lumbees’ home place—it is water and soil, two perfect opposites flowing together since ancient times. There are dense swamps where the water runs southwest, fingerlike, toward the river. But the river is not the wide Shenandoah or roaring Colorado; the Lumber River meanders slowly, twisting and turning an intricate design that changes periodically as her waters forge new paths.

In the Indian section of the county, seen from above, the Lumber River looks like a great snake, twisting and turning, swelling and breathing with the spring and summer rains. Snakes, in fact, have found a comfortable home there. Between the swamps there are wide, shallow basins that never dry out, called pocosins. European newcomers retained the word from our Algonquian ancestors; it translates to “swamp-on-a-hill.” Pocosins are home to the Venus flytrap, the carnivorous threat to unwitting insects and a precious specimen to mystified humans. An equally charming, sweet-smelling vine, the Carolina jessamine, also makes its home there, entwining human hearts in its scent. But don’t suck its nectar or eat its flower; you’ll lose control of your muscles, your speech, convulse, and stop breathing—essentially the same symptoms of a poisonous love. Yet in the hands of particularly skilled healers, the vine’s underground stem can cure the pains of love, especially migraines, fever, and menstrual problems.

Pocosin soil is peat, the vegetative material that becomes coal under proper conditions. Peat began forming 360 million years ago.1 Like Lumbee women who will cry as they laugh, peat itself can burn when it’s wet—burning peat is probably why one of our swamps is called Burnt Swamp. Our ancestors gazed at that peat fire, which burned indefinitely, beneath flowing water. Water would never put out that fire, so long as the peat was there to fuel it.

What spirits inhabit land where fire and water coexist, neither extinguishing the other? No wonder they dubbed one of these places a burning swamp; the name is a contradiction, and contradictions are reminders of how our history affects us. The land and its spirits have history too. We used to place our cemeteries at the edge of pocosins, perhaps because of the spiritual power we recognized there. We also planted a cedar tree, as cedar is the herb that heals—death, and its partner, eternal life, ultimately heal the body’s frailties.

Centuries ago, our pine trees became partners with the swamps. Although the longleaf pine is mostly gone from our landscape today, we can remember a time in which it dominated. In 1524, Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano described “immense forests of trees, more or less dense, too various in colors … too delightful and charming in appearance to be described.”2 The sandy well-drained soil in which longleaf pine grows best accompanied our rich peat: perfect opposites. The longleaf is an evergreen, like the cedar, and from a distance its needles look furry, soft, touchable. They are long and naturally curled, like a child’s eyelashes; many Lumbee men retain those long, curly eyelashes into adulthood, making women mad for them and madly jealous at the same time.

All was forest and swamp, except for footpaths used to navigate through the dry places. The Lowry Road, also called the Mulatto Road, was one of the first of these paths to appear on English maps. Local Indians and Natives from other places carved the Lowry Road. It runs from the Cape Fear River in Cumberland County into South Carolina. In the 1600s, Seneca hunters from Upstate New York may have traveled the Lowry Road as part of their search for beaver and their warfare against Catawbas and other communities in Piedmont Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina. While the road became a place for migrants to travel, it was also a place for us to protect as a boundary that connected our family settlements and kept them hidden from view.

Like so many parts of Lumbee life, the road’s contradictions made our power invisible and at the same time secured it. Just as our Lumbee and American history is a group of stories that we tell, it’s also a collection of silences that we hide behind. The name Mulatto Road is but one example of such concealment. “Mulatto” is how outsiders described us, and it’s a label that speaks to racial ancestry (Indian, Black, and white). But that label is not necessarily how we described ourselves because it does not represent kinship. “Lowry” represents people and relationships, not race, and so that is the name we have upheld, just as we uphold family.

Knowledge of family networks is another way we know who we are, encapsulated in the simple question a Lumbee will often ask when meeting another Lumbee, both at home and when the two have traveled to a far-off place: “Who’s your people?” Southerners of all backgrounds use that phrase to narrow the distance between two people, but in the non-Lumbee world, it is often a test of social class, as if to say, “Is your family the same status as mine?” In other words, how powerful is your family compared to mine? Economics and politics are invested in that question. For Lumbees, the phrase tests a different kind of knowledge—an understanding of history. Often, we might find common ancestors three or four generations past, and then we usually ask another question: “Where do you stay at?” Often the answer is a community like Deep Branch or Union Chapel, one of the communities that has been central to our nation’s structure since before the formation of the United States. This information yields another layer of knowledge, which informs relationships among people but also between people and places. Lumbees are a people because of our attachments to places, and our power is in our history.

The main roads, like the Lowry Road, took our ancestors in and out of our present-day homeland of southeastern North Carolina, and some of them were not from this particular place. Instead, many of our ancestors came from places all the way north to the James River in Virginia and south to the Santee River in South Carolina, east to the Atlantic Ocean and west to the Great Pee Dee and Catawba Rivers, an area of about seven thousand square miles. That territory is not ours today, but we are products of it nonetheless.

Malinda Maynor Lowery (Lumbee) is Cahoon Family Professor in American History at Emory College. She is the author of Lumbee Indians in the Jim Crow South.