Women AdvaNCe Co-Director Nicki Faircloth recently interviewed Waccamaw Siouan Chairwoman, Pamela Young Jacobs. The Waccamaw Siouan Tribe is located in Bladen and Columbus Counties in southeastern North Carolina, in the communities of St. James, Buckhead and Council.
You recently were elected as Chairwoman of your tribe – the Waccamaw Siouan Tribe. Can you tell us more about the history of the Waccamaw Siouan people?
The one thing that I can tell you about the Waccamaw Siouan people is that we are a people of great pride, honor and resilience. The first mention of us appears in the 1700’s when James Moore was on his journey against the Tuscarora. We were known as the Waccon Indians at that time. We are a people that live in a harmonious way with the land using the plants and crops, not only for food, but for medicine.
Many of our women had healing gifts. Ms. Vera Young-Mitchell and her sister Meredith, both living well into their 90’s, were known for their many herbal remedies that they passed down. People come from across the state to be touched by her. They used to say that she could “talk the fire” out of anyone who was burned. She made a special salve from the herbs that she sent us children out to gather for her. After much prayer and the application of her special salve, the result was complete healing without scars.
Our men served in the military during a time when they were punished or considered other races, yet they stood and fought for the very government who did not recognize who they were. My grandfather, Columbus Oree Young, was one of those soldiers who served in World War II. He fought for his country and was categorized as a Black soldier because they would not recognize him as American Indian. He had to fight for his country and against his government to get his race changed to who he was.
Our people sought refuge in the swampy lands of Lake Waccamaw during the war with the state of South Carolina. We built wigwams because the area was so muddy.
There have been several canoes discovered in Lake Waccamaw and many theories surrounding them. Because of the size of the canoes it is assumed that they were used for long trips. It is also said that our people were stargazers and would go out to track star systems.
Our tribe was and is a matriarchal society, meaning the women took care of most things while the men were away. In the present, the women still handle many responsibilities as our men are called away to seek employment.
The majority of our history was passed down orally, not a lot of it was written down due to the lack of education in the earlier years.
A big issue that affects our children still today is the feeling of invisibility, in our school systems and society. The tribe has worked to educate our children through cultural and historical programs. In recent years our STEM and STEAM programs have been a driving force in the advancement of our Native students. But in a society where most indigenous communities are not recognized or respected, it’s always an uphill battle.
Unfortunately due to colonization, our language has not been used since the years just after contact. We like to say that it’s sleeping instead of lost because we are actively working to revive it. Language is such a big part of culture and not having access to it has been challenging in allowing our people to fully embrace our ancestral ways.
As Tribal Chairwoman I am charged with protecting tribal sovereignty, leading the tribal nation in policy making, land management, economic development, health and educational initiatives.
My goal as Tribal Chairwoman is to continue to build relationships and a presence of our people that will combat the invisibility piece of what we have experienced over the years.
In the past year we have achieved some historical feats. One of those things was the first time in our history that the Columbus County Commissioners signed The Indigenous People’s Day Proclamation. The county has a newfound sense of respect and desire for partnership with our people.
We recently partnered with the Museum of Natural Science in Whiteville for The Waccamaw Siouan Heritage Celebration with a record high turnout for a museum event. Our STEM Studio Program has partnered with countless agencies and our tribal programs are growing by leaps and bounds. The affect our programs are having on our people has been life changing to our people as a whole. Our tribe makes Columbus County unique; we contribute to the culture of the county, economic development and tourism. We are finally starting to feel valued in our county and it feels great! Finally our Native leaders and county leaders have been able to walk on a path together to ensure success for Native and non-Native citizens of the county.
Why are the Waccamaw Siouan people called “People of the Falling Star?”
Tribal history says our homeland was formed when a meteor struck the earth thousands of years ago. Flaming to a brilliance of innumerable suns as it hurtled toward earth, the meteor finally struck, burning itself deep within the earth. The waters of the surrounding swamps and rivers flowed into the crater and cooled it, creating Lake Waccamaw, a gem blue, verdant green lake. We are the “People of the Falling Star.”
What are some obstacles your tribe has faced in recent years?
The pandemic has negatively affected our tribe in many ways. The first is it has affected the way our people gather. We are a people who need contact with each other and not being able to be together has had a mental and physical impact on our people. Events like powwows are important for our people to learn and practice culture and socialization. We made the hard choice to cancel our annual powwow. We made this choice because we want to keep our people, especially the elders safe and healthy.
Because of historical trauma many of our tribal members have had a serious mistrust about the vaccine. Any time a government entity says indigenous people must do something, it doesn’t go over well. Because of mistrust and other reasons, our vaccination rate was recently recorded at 28%.
The duty of our tribal council is to protect our tribal members and if there’s more information about the science of the vaccine available, then we want our people to have access to it. I serve on a Covid Response Team with members from other tribal communities. This committee works in tandem with the Indian Health Commission and Health and Human Services to gather updates and get resources to share with our tribal members. We share this information on our websites and through tribal offices. We found that education about COVID-19 and the vaccine is usually more accepted and heard by our people when someone from our own tribe presents the information rather than those outside of the community.
I direct a program called Native Girls Rock. We recently did a live talk series hosting women from our tribe as guest speakers to address mental, emotional, physical and spiritual issues. The goal was to help our tribal members by providing a space to talk about the effects of COVID, as well as other issues that are happening in our Native communities. I believe that having this sort of space available is crucial for our Native women to promote healing, and so that their voices can be heard.
We’ve had mysterious cancer clusters in our area and our community members have started talking more widely about the issue. The cancer clusters could be because of water contamination by Chemours with a contaminant known as PFAS (perfluoroalkyl substances). PFAS contamination can be associated with birth defects, cancer, high cholesterol and other health issues. An article that talks more about how PFAS contamination has affected the Waccamaw Siouan Tribe can be found here.
Like I stated previously, many Americans are unaware about indigenous people. Even though this is an issue that most Native Americans experience, it doesn’t make it any easier for our tribal members. When you’re in your tribal community, people know who you are and your culture. When you leave your tribal community, explaining who you are and dealing with questions and behaviors that are belittling can be very tough, especially for our youth. Being in our own community offers a sense of support and understanding, while dealing with those outside the community is more difficult especially when students are going away to college and don’t have the immediate family support that they are used to.
For the older generation, trust with outsiders was a big issue! Our elders were treated very poorly and had to endure racism in ways that we cannot imagine, especially during the integration of schools in the south. It’s important for our younger generation to understand that our people are here now because of what our ancestors did to survive. Our ancestors stood up for our people and they were abused for it — emotionally and physically. Because of what our elders faced, our tribe is here today. Their blood, sweat, tears and never giving up our way of life afforded our generation the ability to say, I am a member of the Waccamaw Siouan Tribe of North Carolina.
Do you have any recent personal/professional achievements you’d like to share?
- I was recently crowned the Pecan Harvest Festival Queen. There is no pageant. Each year the queen is a leader in the county chosen by the committee. I am the first American Indian to be named to this position. The article about this can be found here.
- Myself and Ashley Lomboy worked on the proclamation effort. Columbus County Commissioners signed the proclamation last year, the first of its kind in history celebrating Indigenous Peoples Day.
- Last year Southeastern Community College & The Museum of Natural Sciences in downtown Whiteville adopted a land acknowledgement in honor of our people.
Learn more about the Waccamaw Siouan Tribe
- Check out the website for the Waccamaw Siouan Tribe.
- Read the book “From Princess to Chief,” which provides insight into the lift of Priscilla Freeman Jacobs, the first female chief of the Waccamaw Siouan tribe from 1986-2005. This book is available for purchase on Amazon. This book is also available to be checked out at the Columbus County Library.
- Follow the Facebook account for the Waccamaw Siouan Tribe and keep a look out for their annual powwow celebration and other events.
Want to make a difference?
Donate to the Waccamaw Siouan tribe using this link.