Reclaiming My Identity

This article was written by our Everly Mag Intern, Connor.

Most people may not know it from my fair-skin, but I’m Native American. My mom is a full-blooded Lumbee Indian and I strongly identify with the group. We’re the biggest tribe east of the Mississippi, and the ninth biggest in the nation. Even though my tribe’s homelands are in North Carolina, I grew up about 45 minutes west of New York City.

Being native so far away from my homelands has always been extremely frustrating. I feel out of place almost anywhere I go; except for Pembroke. Pembroke is a small town within Robeson County, North Carolina, and over 90% of the town’s population identifies as Lumbee. Each year I return to the town for “Lumbee Homecoming”; a celebration of my Native Heritage which also doubles as a family reunion. While in Pembroke I never need to prove my heritage to anyone else, it’s plainly accepted.

I feel out of place almost anywhere I go; except for Pembroke

With the lack of indigenous representation across all media, people always have misconceptions about who Natives are or what we look like. Frequently I’ve been asked if I live in a teepee or hunt for all of my own food. Neither one of these is true. In reality I live in a college dorm and get food from dining halls or, if I’m feeling fancy, Chipotle (completely unrelated but Chipotle is one of the best places on Earth).

I completely understand why I still get asked these questions. I have always tried to be kind and courteous in responding to people who ask them. After all, it isn’t their fault for having these misconceptions, it’s a larger systemic issue.

Then there are the more upsetting comments. I’ve been told I would only get into college because I’m Native, or people have accused me of lying to them about my heritage. I still try to answer kindly, but it definitely tends to be more of a trying situation.

I’ve been forced to question my place amongst my Native ancestors and wonder if I deserved to be proud of my heritage

For most of my life I have felt out of touch with the culture of the Lumbee tribe. It wasn’t until the end of my high school career where I came to the understanding that Lumbees assimilated very early on with the first European settlers. Because of this not much remains from pre-colonial times. For example, our language, known as Algonquian, has few known remaining words (and even then, we aren’t sure if those words were the correct ones used).

Hurtful comments, living removed from my homelands, and not really knowing much about my culture always made me question my place amongst other Natives. I would always wonder if I was actually Native American or was just trying to make myself feel special.

Yet, Native culture has and always will run through my veins. The Lumbees have always valued education. When denied any form of higher education, my ancestors founded the Croatan Normal School, an institution that originally had the goal of training Lumbee teachers. Today, the institution has evolved into the University of North Carolina at Pembroke (UNCP) and remains the only four year university in the world founded by Native Americans for Native Americans. Many of my ancestors worked in education, for example, my Grandfather was a Principal at multiple different schools and was appointed by US President Ford to The National Advisory Council on Indian Education. I have always made a point to carry the importance of education wherever I go in life. I’ve used online platforms to raise money for education based organizations and try to be an educator of what Native Americans are actually like.

Native Culture has always and will always run through my veins

Historical Marker near the site of the original Croatan Normal School. Photo By J. J. Prats

Storytelling is yet another important aspect of the Lumbee Tribe. It’s how we have been able to retain pieces of our culture. In 4th Grade I had a project where I had to tell a story to the class. I remember making it as energetic and fun as possible. My class died laughing and asked my teacher if I could continue to tell a funny weekly story, and I even did this for awhile in 5th Grade. In high school I discovered my passion for theatre. I love being able to perform onstage and sharing new perspectives with an audience. My ultimate goal in life is to tell Native stories from a Native perspective. So many of our stories are going unknown, and it would be a tragedy to lose them. I don’t know how I want to tell these stories, I just know that I want to have a part in telling their story.

UNCP’s campus today. Photo by Christopher Ziemnowciz

Although I’ll only be a Sophomore in the fall, I became a part of my campus’s student Indigenous organization last year, and helped run the campus-wide powwow. Earlier this summer I interned with College Horizons, an incredible nonprofit whose goal is to help Native Americans further understand the college process and instill Native pride amongst indigenous youth. This next year I plan on becoming even more involved within the group and learning more about other tribes.

I’ve come to realize that I am Native enough. My identity is mine, and I should be the one to define it. I am Lumbee Indian, and anybody who thinks I’m lying doesn’t deserve to be in my life.

My identity is mine, and I should be the one to define it.

I think this is a lesson that is important for anyone who is struggling with their identity. Take initiative and don’t let others tell you who you are. If you feel out of touch with your culture, it’s not your fault for feeling that way. It’s never too late to start learning more about your heritage. There will always be resources and ways to get involved.

Bottom line: Be proud of who you are. Find your communities and embrace your culture. Only by celebrating our true selves will we create more societal understanding.

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