When I was growing up, I was not connected to my Indian heritage. I was raised by two Native American parents that had “found their way out” and did not embrace the culture they had left behind in Lumberton, North Carolina (the Lumbee Indian tribe of Eastern North Carolina). They were connected to their families but they wanted my brothers and me to assimilate to non-native culture. Later they realized I would be the one to keep asking them to circle back to the way of life they left behind – “circle back,” the Native words meaning to go home.
I was constantly asking questions, reading about the Lumbee tribe and other indigenous tribes and even finding myself connecting with the Wisdom Keepers. The Wisdom Keepers are a national group of Native Americans dedicated to sharing their knowledge with all people of all ethnicities. I became fascinated with my ancestors and relatives from Robinson County, the proud and loving people called the Lumbee Indians who settled along the Lumber River. The Lumbee band in Robeson County, North Carolina has grown in recognition and voice in the past years.
I grew up moving around as my Dad was in the Army, and so to provide some stability, I spent many days working on my grandparent’s farm. My father felt this was a good way to learn about work ethic. I loved the way my relatives labored each day in the fields of Robinson County. They played jokes on each other and held huge bonfires on Saturday night. I loved the feeling of belonging to this huge clan of relatives and watching as they tended earth, each other, and community members that needed any type of support.
The first I remember hearing about Christopher Columbus was in grade school. The Queen spared no expense to give him all he needed. I imagined Columbus on the bow of his ships, the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria, with his hair fluttering in the breeze and resembling Johnny Depp à la Pirates of the Caribbean. It all appeared so romantic and idealistic to me.
It was later in life as I made my own Journey into the new world of Native Americans and indigenous people that I began to think about Columbus Day differently. Columbus did not discover North America; there were explorers here before him… and the main people here were my people, the Red People. In 1492 when Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue, there were over 300 separate native languages in North America.
The turning point for me in believing that Native Americans should own this day of discovery is when my Cherokee teacher Awiakta told me, “When the white settlers arrived in the northeast area now known as New York, the Iroquois nation was very intelligent and developed. One of the first questions the Native American people asked the setters was, ‘Where are your women?’ This intelligent tribe of Native people was a matriarchal society, and they knew the importance of women in their culture. Women had a strong influence on the development of their laws, tribal council, and community.
For me, the lights came on then. I had witnessed the work of two grandmothers, dozens of aunts, and my own mother who had built and maintained families and community. There is something so powerful about Native women. Their strong connections to inclusivity, truth, and vulnerability have always amazed me. I realized that the Native people claimed America first and many of them claim it is because of their women’s knowledge and direction.
My people were here back in 1492 and we are still here. You may call today Columbus Day, but in my heart and spirit I claim it for my people.
The Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina is a state recognized tribe of approximately 55,000 members, most of them living in Robeson County. The Lumbee Tribe is the largest native tribe in North Carolina and the largest tribe east of the Mississippi. The population of Pembroke — a city located within Robeson County and also home to UNCA-P — is 89% Lumbee Indian and the county is 40% Lumbee. For information about the Lumbee Tribe and local events and pow-wows go to www.lumbeetribe.com.