Historian returns home to teach Carolina’s first Lumbee Indian course
Original Article: http://gazette.unc.edu/archives2/10apr14/file.4.html
Being born in the United States confers an automatic right of citizenship.
There is no official requirement to be born in Robeson County to be considered a Lumbee Indian, yet Malinda Maynor Lowery’s parents understood that a tie to their ancestral lands is as much a part of Lumbee identity as a blood connection.
That is why 37 years ago they drove some 100 miles from their home in Durham to the hospital in Lumberton where Lowery was born.
Understanding the Lumbee history became Lowery’s driving force – first as an undergraduate at Harvard, then at Carolina where she earned her Ph.D. in history in 2005. That drive gained greater intellectual force in 2006 when she returned to Harvard to become the first of two Native American tenure-track professors hired there.
And it was that same appreciation of tribal history that Lowery sought to pass on to her unborn daughter in 2007 when she was wheeled to a delivery room down the same hallway in the same Lumberton hospital where Lowery was born.
“My husband and I just didn’t feel comfortable having her born up in Cambridge, Massachusetts,” Lowery said.
So, just as her parents had done for her, Lowery made sure that Robeson County would not be simply a place of interest on a map, but a touchstone for her daughter’s identity as a Lumbee.
She is quick to add that they didn’t drive directly from Cambridge. Just before her daughter was born, Lowery and her husband were in Robeson County to produce “Strike at the Wind,” the Pembroke outdoor drama about the life of Henry Berry Lowry. Lowry was a post-Civil War figure viewed by some white authorities as the leader of a murderous gang and by Lumbees as a pioneer in the fight for social justice.
Lowery is convinced that it was the birth of her daughter that prompted Carolina officials to contact her about filling a faculty position in American studies that opened when a former professor of hers retired.
People within the department knew that Lowery’s parents – who both had retired after long careers as professors at N.C. Central University – still lived in Durham.
Besides being close enough that her parents could see their granddaughter whenever they wanted, Lowery said, Carolina also had something Harvard did not: a commitment to establish one of the best programs in Native American studies in the country.
Righting a historic wrong
That commitment came long after her father went to Ohio State University to study to become a veterinarian, Lowery said, because at that time North Carolina’s public universities did not enroll American Indians.
It began in earnest in 1999 when then-provost Dick Richardson convened a group to explore why a flagship public university in a state with the largest American Indian population east of the Mississippi had no organized program focused on American Indian studies.
By 2001, the Provost’s Committee on Native American Issues was formed to support efforts to build programs of teaching, research and service relevant to American Indians and to advise the provost in initiatives focused on recruiting and retaining Indian students, staff and faculty.
In 2006, the University opened the American Indian Center that has cemented the University’s pledge to permanently establish American Indian scholarship as part of the University’s intellectual life.
Lowery did not take the job she was offered. Instead, she asked for a position in the history department that she agreed to take, provided that the American studies position be kept open and filled by someone else.
University leaders agreed to Lowery’s terms. She joined the history faculty last fall. And this coming fall, the faculty position in American studies will be filled by Daniel Cobb, a scholar of American Indian history in the 20th century from Miami University of Ohio.
“At this moment, UNC is poised to become the leading program in American Indian studies in the country,” Lowery said.
‘The past is not dead’
Lowery came to Carolina shortly before the publication of her first book, “Lumbee Indians in the Jim Crow South: Race Identity, and the Making of a Nation,” published this year by UNC Press.
The book explores how Lumbee Indians constructed their identity during this period – not by the absence of black blood, as Southern white segregationists advocated – but by layers that tie together kin and place, race and class, tribe and nation.
“The book argues that there are two parts of identity – how outsiders look at and interpret you, and how insiders talk among themselves about membership in the group,” Lowery said. “The substance of identity is the conversation between these two things.”
Lowery knew she could use her book as a resource last fall when she began to develop what would become the first Lumbee history course taught at Carolina. She is teaching the course this spring.
She knew students could draw upon digital holdings of the Southern Historical Collection for reference, but she was unsure how in a seminar setting she could overcome the dearth of scholarly literature about Lumbees.
As a result, she developed a novel idea: to call upon students to generate the content themselves by connecting them with members of the Lumbee community who could share their culture and history.
“Researchers have always come into the Lumbee community wanting answers to their own questions rather than seeking answers to the questions that are important to Lumbees,” Lowery said. She structured the course to make sure students avoided that mistake.
Lowery said the execution of the concept would not have been possible without the technical assistance provided by the Lenovo Instructional Innovation Grant she received for the class from the University’s Center for Faculty Excellence.
Through the grant, Lowery was able to create a Web site, lumbee.web.unc.edu, which serves as a portal to online exhibits of the students’ work. At the same time, the Lumbee experts can read what students write online and post their comments. The final exam for the class will be a Web conference between the students and their Lumbee community partners.
Lowery also organized two class trips to Robeson County.
In the first, her class traveled to Purnell Swett High School in Pembroke to talk with students, then visited the grandmother of one of her students, a Tuscarora Indian who, like his grandmother, grew up in the far reaches of the county where the land was filled with corn and tobacco fields as it had been for centuries. Once there, the grandmother offered the students a traditional Indian supper that included chicken and pastry, collards, sweet potato bread and cornbread.
During their second trip, the class will visit the home of Henry Berry Lowry and the gravesite of his father, Allen. After the Confederate Home Guard lynched his father and brother, William, Henry Berry Lowry followed the Indian custom known as “the law of blood” and mounted a campaign to find and execute the people involved in the lynchings.
The idea of such visits, more broadly, is to teach students that history is a continuous stream of events that they can see and experience – and even taste – for themselves.
“That is really the main point of the field trip – to teach them that history is not dead and that various aspects of it can be re-examined and re-interpreted again and again,” Lowery said.
“As Faulkner said, ‘The past is not dead, it’s not even past.’”