This month, the University Office for Diversity and Inclusion’s ongoing series, “Voices at Carolina,” honors American Indian Heritage Month.
The land on which UNC stands is the ancestral homeland of the Coharie, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, the Haliwa-Saponi, the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, the Meherrin, the Sappony, the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation and the Waccamaw Siouan — all of which are state-recognized, but only the Eastern Band of Cherokee are federally recognized. The Tuscarora, also a tribe in North Carolina, is not recognized by either the state or the federal government.
Still, their numbers are low at UNC: only 111 American Indian/Alaska Native students are currently enrolled; only 318 are staff and only 16 are permanent full-time faculty (as of 2020). Students, faculty and staff have long felt a sense of isolation from this lack of visibility and presence. In response, a student-created video eight years ago addressed the need with then-Chancellor Folt, for better understanding and support. This month, we provide space for several American Indian Tar Heels to generously share their own personal perspectives.
Jessica Lambert Ward
director, Carolina Collaborative for Resilience, University Office for Diversity and Inclusion; counselor and coordinator for the College of Arts & Sciences’ Academic Advising Program
I cannot speak to what it is like to be an American Indian at Carolina. I can only speak from my own experience. I identify as an Indigenous woman who is an enrolled member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina. I am also Okinawan, descended from the Indigenous islanders of Okinawa, Japan. What is it like to be a multiracial (American Indian and Japanese) Indigenous person at Carolina? It’s complicated.
In the Lumbee community, people often ask, “Who’s your people?” This commonly used phrase is a way to relate to other Lumbee people while establishing a connection to the community and land. To answer this question is to say, “I belong.”
Who are my people? I am the daughter of David Lambert and the granddaughter of Willie and Bessie. My grandparents lived on the edge of the Prospect community at the intersection across from the Collins and Sons corner store and feed mill. My grandmother was a lifelong member of Sycamore Hill Church. My dad still lives off Oxendine School Road.
Where is home? When I close my eyes and think of “home,” I see the long winding country roads, tobacco fields and pine trees that cover Robeson County — home of the Lumbee people. I reflect back on summers spent at my grandparents’ house where we picked and processed our own produce while Southern gospel music played in the background. I remember the taste of homemade biscuits and fresh peaches after a hard day’s work, Sunday dinners attended by my large extended family and grape ice cream on the Fourth of July.
I was raised Lumbee. I know myself as both Lumbee and Okinawan. The world sees me as “half-blood” or “something else.” To know that I belong in multiple spaces, but not truly feel like I am accepted in either is complicated or was incredibly isolating. My first two years at Carolina were marked by imposter syndrome, depression, anxiety and countless physical ailments — the accumulated and compounded impact of a lifetime of you are “too much” of one thing, “not enough” of another and “what are you?” My Native peers often talked about the difficulty of walking in two worlds — the Native world in their home communities and the predominantly white world at the University. I felt like I had to run a daily marathon through multiple worlds, make good grades, work a part-time job, manage family responsibilities and hold leadership positions in multiple student organizations. It was exhausting. I eventually found myself with great grades, an impressive resume, but lost with no direction and completely burned out. I left Carolina two semesters shy of graduation.
In my time away from Carolina, I committed to learning about myself and all of my identities. I found inspiration in reading about great American Indian female leaders. I adopted a more holistic approach to taking care of myself. I learned to accept myself as a whole person — I am both Lumbee AND Okinawan — I am more than the sum of my parts.
Fast forward: I have completed both my undergraduate and graduate education at Carolina. I have adopted an Indigenous worldview that allows me to view my life and work through a lens that is holistic, relational and interconnected. I apply this lens in my work with the many diverse students that I serve. As I look across the campus, I see that we are all deeply connected. I believe that as a community the whole is more valuable than its many parts. Every person has a purpose. Everyone is worthy of respect, dignity and care. We all have a role in providing a brave space where each person can reach their full potential. What an awesome responsibility! What an honor and privilege to do this work in this place!
educational leadership program coordinator, clinical assistant professor, UNC School of Education
“When did you first realize your racial identity?” I use this question as a prompt for students to compose their racial autobiographies in EDUC 727: The Social Context of Educational Leadership, a required course for aspiring school leaders. The purpose of the assignment is for students to examine how race has manifested in their lives as a process to unearth assumptions and biases that shape their worldviews and epistemologies.
As a Lumbee Indian raised in Wakulla, a rural community in Robeson County, my response to this question is the very reason I use it in a course for future principals. My formative years were exclusively Native. Oxendine Elementary School, where my mother worked for much of my childhood, and Cherokee Chapel Church, where her body was laid to rest, were both built by Lumbees and to this day are occupied by Lumbees. (It is important to note that Robeson County, like most rural communities after forced integration, maintains de facto segregation in churches and neighborhoods). Stories from my childhood included the night the Lumbees ambushed the KKK just outside of Maxton and the legend of Henry Berry Lowry, who led a gang to resist the white man’s rule after the Civil War. These teachings, and others like them, glorify our resolve and self-determination, legitimize our Native ways of knowing and being and counter the dominant narratives that glorify whiteness and assign nobility to U.S. forefathers.
Not until my formal education at Peterson Elementary School do I recall being consciously aware of my racial identity, of what it meant to be Lumbee. Not until then did I realize that to be Lumbee was to not be white. By fourth grade, I had become socialized to assign meaning to race in a way that positioned me and those who looked and sounded like me in a social hierarchy. Unlike Oxendine or nearby Prospect Elementary, Peterson Elementary was triracial. Teachers, most of whom were white, assigned me to reading groups, corrected spelling quizzes and on a few occasions slapped the palm of my hand with a ruler for talking too much. While I do not believe that the methods my teachers employed were racially motivated, I do think that they were a part of a system of education that worked for them and that they replicated the methods of that system accordingly.
More than skin tone, geography or even faith is a distinctive ethnic marker that distinguishes our people. Lumbee English is an ethnic dialect that deviates from standard English in vocabulary, pronunciation and grammar. Coupled with tribally contextualized values and understandings, speaking and writing in one’s native tongue conflicted with conventional academic criteria, thus schooling became a dilemma. While it only took one attempt to “correct” my granny’s word choice for me to realize that leaving my grammar lesson at school was in my self-interest, I struggled to reconcile feelings of betrayal that came with “talking white.” Realizing that advancement meant that I must learn how to appeal to a white audience has psychological implications that persist into adulthood.
Perhaps this is what led me to educational leadership, to practice leadership in racially, linguistically diverse schools and districts, to conduct research that recognizes the experiences of Native students in predominantly white, research-intensive universities and, since joining the faculty in the School of Education, to support other Lumbee scholars on their respective journeys. My racialized journey compels me to decenter whiteness in the content I present, to incorporate counternarratives and storytelling pedagogies and to create safe spaces for students to be vulnerable and transparent about their own identities.