What it Means to be a Native Person


Join Women AdvaNCe as we celebrate Native American Heritage Month this November!

In North Carolina we have the largest population of native peoples east of the Mississippi River, with a population of over 130,000. Tribes in our state include:

Haliwa Saponi (Counties: Halifax, Warren)

Coharie (Counties: Sampson, Harnett)

Meherrin (County: Hertford)

Tuscarora (Counties: Bertie, Robeson, Scotland and more)

Sappony (County: Person)

Waccamaw Siouan (Counties: Columbus, Bladen)

Lumbee (Counties: Robeson, Scotland, Hoke, Cumberland)

Occaneechi Saponi (Counties: Alamance, Orange)

Eastern Band of Cherokee (Counties: Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Jackson, Macon, Swain)

During November we will be publishing articles from native women in North Carolina on identity, culture, violence, missing persons, and much more.

A quote I love from social media says, “being native isn’t about being ‘part something,’ it’s about being a part of something.” In our communities, it’s not about the colonial construct of percentages, but instead about kinship and cultural participation. Many outside our communities in NC have negative things to say about our histories and bloodlines, all because they only have a basic knowledge of our existence, but pretend that they are all knowing.

What many fail to realize is what kinship means. Race is a social construct, and was created in order to divide people of this world. Many of Italian origin have darker attributes, and many of Scottish origin have light attributes, but despite the vast difference in appearance between these people, they’re all still considered “white” or “European.” It is no different in our native communities, we come in an array of skin colors, hair colors, and other physical attributes.

Tuscarora people lived (and still do) along every major river in eastern NC. Our people typically lived in smaller bands versus one big unit. During colonial times we took in runaway slaves and friendly Europeans and made them full members of the tribe. Once these people were accepted into the tribe, no matter their skin color or appearance, they were “Tuscarora.” Their future children were not mixed or half Tuscarora, they were just Tuscarora. In Indian Country today, the same attitude exists.  You either are a native person or you are not. To us, you must maintain ties with your people and learn/practice your culture in order to identify yourself as a native person. If you do not maintain what we call “present day contact” then you are of native descent, not native.

I have many uncomfortable experiences I could tell you about, like when I was told that some of my people have a “dirty” skin color. Racism runs deep in the south, and Indian country is not excluded from this. I can tell you no indigenous person likes to be asked “what percent Indian are you?” If every native person had a dollar for every time someone told us about their Cherokee princess ancestor, we’d be out of poverty – yesterday.

I grew up with older folks making snide comments to me because I was a kid and really couldn’t defend myself. These comments caused a sort of PTSD. I was told as a preteen that my grandma was “just an ‘n word’ and not a native person” because of her darker phenotype. It was hard to be told by someone I cared about that my sister and I were “cute little injun kids” at 11 years old. It’s harder when someone makes a comment like that to you that you know and trust.  You don’t know how to respond. Many times as a teenager I just listened to comments and didn’t defend myself because I didn’t know what to say.

The only knowledge many have about native history comes from school, and that history is extremely basic. Most people in this state couldn’t name three tribal groups that exist here. You probably work or associate with a person who is native, and don’t know it. Many people who know any history, usually only know the history of Cherokee folk in general, and have no specific or general knowledge about the different Native American bands in our state. I remember learning about the Trail of Tears in school. My classmates helped me with a project on Cherokee people even though I don’t identify as Cherokee, because that’s the only tribe we had historical access to and they wanted me to be able to teach them about it.

I’m used to my peoples’ history being excluded from textbooks. If I want to know about the history of my people, I’ll read a book by Malinda Maynor Lowery or Kelvin Ray Oxendine. I’m also used to being compared to Pocahontas, because you’re not a real native unless you look like her. You’re also apparently not a real native unless you are enrolled in a federally recognized tribe, at least that’s the opinion of some who can’t even tell you a single historical account of native peoples outside of the Trail of Tears.

I don’t celebrate Thanksgiving. I get together with my family and we cook, but it’s more about having the day off. I’m sure there were positive exchanges between natives and non natives in this state, but there were a lot more negative ones like when colonists were kidnapping our children with the intent of making them into slaves or shipping them to European bidders as sex slaves. We lost many men and women who fought to free our children, and this fighting was the main reason for the kick off of the Tuscarora War in NC. You can visit Fort Neoheroka in Snow Hill today (Greene County), the location of a massacre in 1713 of our Tuscarora people which concluded the war. In the massacre, many men, women and children were burned alive in a fire.

To be Native in NC is to be a part of a miracle. Our state was one of the 13 colonies, and an epicenter for colonial activity. Yes, we’re still here, and we hold our culture deep!

To learn more about NC Indigenous communities, read the stories we will publish during Native American Heritage Month in November!  

Nicki Faircloth is called “vegetable soup” by her father because of her mixed identity as a person of Native, Hungarian, Mexican and various other bloodlines.  She is also part of Women AdvaNCe’s Leadership Team.

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