Shalom Cherian-#6

23 03 2010

Today’s reading was from Dr. Malinda Maynor Lowery’s Lumbee Indians in the Jim Crow South. The selected readings were the preface and the introduction.

In the preface, Lowery begins with an introduction to the geographical location, and goes on to introduce the Indians of Robeson County, NC. I think the geographical introduction was a good way to emphasize the importance of place to the Robeson county Indians. The book focuses on how these Indians have toiled to create an identity as a People, a race, a tribe, a nation-these the main aspects of Indian identity that the book focuses on.  Lowery points out that the markers of Indian Identity have been/are fluid and has changed/may change over time depending on various circumstances. Notions of Indian identity may have two very different perspectives- one, for those inside the community (they Know they are Indian), and the other for outsiders who may have specific ideas of what qualities may constitute being called ‘Indian.’ An example that the author gives is the various name changes that the Robeson County Indians underwent from 1885 to 1956.

Inspite of segregation, disempowerment, and factionalism, Robeson County Indians have maintained their identity as a people held together by the bonds of place and kinship. According to Lowery, Kinship and place is the main foundation of identity for these Indians. Factionalism among the Indians, and how it has been used as a strategic response to political conditions, and its effect on Indian Identity is a big topic that Lowery covers in the book. Lowery explains why having an Indian perspective on the historical events surrounding them is vital. Also, she reminds us that the Robeson county Indians are not only Indians, but also Americans, and southerners, and that their oral traditions and history are integral pieces of American Histories.

In the introduction, Lowery begins with the narrative of the 1936 visit of the OIA members to Robeson County. This visit was meant to help the Indians gain federal recognition. But, the OIA’s criteria for proving the ‘Indianess’ of Robeson County Indians was through testing ancestry and physical features. However, this undertaking harmed, more than helped the Indians efforts for recognition. The OIA failed to recognize the history of the coalescence of these Indians, and the kinship and identification within the community.

Lowery explains how and why Robeson county Indians are a “nation of nations” (p. 5). Te present day Lumbees and Tuscaroras are the results of mass migrations, intermarriage, and cultural exchange between various tribes like the Cheraw, Peedee, Tuscarora that lived in/settled in and around Robeson county during the 16th and 17th century.  The roles of women in the community are explained and the importance of ancestors to group identity is shown. One thing that I was surprised by, is when Lowery points out that ancestry and kinship can be distinct aspects of identity for the Lumbee Indian. Personally, I have never had to think of them as separate.

The historical events that impacted the Indians during the 18th and 19th century are mentioned. For example, how the Robeson County Indians lost their right to vote in 1835. The White supremacist landscape of the south, is against which the Indians suffered segregation and disempowerment. Lowery uses the events of Henry Berry Lowry as an example of how Indians reacted to increasing amounts of restrictions set on them. The Lowry war had integral effects on the South and on the community. The event gave Robeson county Indians a social identity and a drive to be politically active and achieve autonomy.

I never understood Why the Henry Berry Lowry story was tied in closed to the identity of the people. But on reading the last few paragraphs of the introduction, I think I understand better. Question I would like to know more about:

1. Would Henry Berry Lowry consider himself a Lumbee?

2. Do the Tuscarora hold Henry Berry Lowry in the same light as the Lumbee do?

Source: An Interview with a Tuscarora. Finding who/what Henery Berry Lowry means to them?




Reflections on a Lumbee Wake (aka “Settin’ Up”)

14 02 2010

Rest in Peace, Miss Mable Oxendine, age 95.

An elegy by Lumbee writer Vinita “Cookie” Clark:

“She’s Playing In The Angel Band”

The other day in heaven the orchestra leader when to God and said “I need another piano player to play in the Angel Band. Someone with those talented miracle hands.” Mable’s BFF Evelyn heard the rumor, she went to God and said ” my BFF who is still on Earth has those talented miracle hands and I know in my heart she would liike to play once again. My friend Mable has always played for you and I can tell you that to you she has been true.” So, God looked in the Book, found her name and said “go down to Earth Evelyn and ask her if she wants to come and play in the Angel Band.”

The other day Mable got an unexpected vistor when she got a knock on her hearts door. It was her BFF Evelyn whom she was so glad to see. She looked in her BFF’s eyes, at her smile and asked “have you came here for me?”

After a moment, Evelyn look at her childhood friend and said “Do you want to go to heaven and join the Angel Band? They need another piano player because they are singing up there all the time.” Sitting at her home, most of the time alone. Mable decided she would journey to heaven and play at foot of God’s throne. For countless years, she played at Berea Baptist and saw many come to the altar.

Upon her reply of “yes”. Mable found herself in a long white dress. Her once crippled hands no longer felt any pain. “This is classy” she said. Of course sis, we are going to heaven and there we have only the very best.”

Now, Mable’s hands are healed and she is playing once again. Think of the joy everyone feels in heaven when they see her as the new piano play in the Angel Band. She is sure the piano player at Berea Baptist Church will play “Amazing Grace” especially for her once again.

R.I.P Miss Mable, thank you for reminding me everytime you saw me that you never forgot my father Chase. You will be missed by so many. You made all of us proud.

I attended Miss Mable’s wake on Friday night, February 12, with my mother Louise. Mable was my cousin on my dad’s side–she and my dad were first cousins. I’ve known her all my life. She had important connections to my mom’s family too. As Cookie’s tribute above indicated, Miss Mable was a wonderful piano player and choral director–she directed the all-Indian Pembroke Men’s Chorus and Pembroke Ladies’ Chorus since their founding, in the 1950s. Both of my mother’s parents sang in these choruses, which performed at gospel singings all over the state, for white, black, and Indian audiences. My mother has many memories of Miss Mable and her distinctive piano style–bright, with an unusual syncopation that was her signature. Occasionally my mother would whisper these memories to me during the evening. In fact, one of the singers that night was Robert Earl Jacobs, the last living member of the original Pembroke Men’s Chorus.

The wake was held at Miss Mable’s church, Berea Baptist in Pembroke, right across from “the college,” or UNC-Pembroke. One elder told me that night that the land for the church and the orphanage that sat next to it (the Odom Home, an orphanage originally founded for Lumbee children) was given to the Indian community by a white man from the Robeson County town of Saint Pauls, back in the 1940s. This man was deeply disturbed by the fact that Indian orphans were sent to the Indian-only section of the state prison, because there was no Indian-0nly orphanage provided by the state of North Carolina, and children could not live at orphanages for blacks or whites. With the encouragement of Miss Mary Livermore, a white lady who served as a kind of informal social worker and missionary in the community (my mother lived with her during college and has lots of stories about her too), this gentleman from Saint Pauls decided to donate the land adjacent to the Indian Normal School (now UNC-P) for an orphanage and church. Members of the Indian community themselves then raised the money to build the orphanage and church, and the state only stepped in much later, after the Baptist Convention became involved in running the Odum Home.

But I wasn’t thinking about this bit of history when my mother and I sat down in a pew towards the back of the church, after viewing the body and hugging family members. Rather, my attention was immediately on the socializing and people watching that makes Lumbee wakes so lively and enjoyable in a case like this one, when the death was not unexpected. A quick joke set the tone for the evening–the lady sitting behind us with her husband was a breast cancer survivor like my mother; they had known each other for years. My mom asked the lady how she was recovering, and the lady told a little story about how when she saw the doctor after her mastectomy and he asked how she was doing, she said, “it was my titty that had the cancer, and it’s gone now! I’m fine!” I thought this was hilarious, having watched my mother undergo two mastectomies, but fortunately no chemo or radiation. The surgeries and recoveries were painful, but the idea that the cancer is gone, detached from the body, offers a lot of hope and humor to what is otherwise a terrifying disease. The joke was a perfect example of how many Lumbee elders handle such health situations and old age in general–with tremendous optimism.

From knowing Miss Mable, I would say she carried this kind of optimism as well. She had such a long life that the oldest members of the crowd were at least 15 years her junior, and all remembered her like a mother, an aunt, a mentor, a guide. She had no children of her own, and many of the speakers commented on how she treated them with intimate, loving kindness. She called everyone “sweetie” (“especially when she couldn’t remember your name!” my mother whispered), or “love.” “Bye, love,” “Hey, sweetie,” was how she greeted me and many, many others. She just said it in such a way as to make you feel you were her only sweetie. Miss Mable was a strikingly beautiful lady throughout her life, and of course the men who spoke at the wake all joked that they believed they were her only “sweetie.” Though she was twice widowed, in many ways Miss Mable bucked the trend of women who were beholden to their husbands. She had her own life, her own work, her own music, her own voice, way before such things were widely valued in American culture–her husbands knew this and must have respected these attributes. In fact, I was surprised that no one, throughout the entire evening, mentioned her husbands at all. This signals not a lack of regard for her mates or her relationships with them, but instead, Miss Mable was truly part of the community and everyone felt that she belonged to them. She reciprocated that feeling with her warmth, openness, and selfless giving to our musical life.

The spiritual message of the evening was held in prayer and in music. In spite of the fact that she called everyone sweetie and treated everyone sweetly, by all accounts Miss Mable’s two true loves were Jesus and gospel music, especially the “old songs,” not modern Southern gospel but old (probably 1930s, 1940s) Baptist choir songs that were written for performance rather than congregational singing. Often wakes are held at the funeral home, but the church was a better setting for the musical groups that the family included as a tribute to Miss Mable’s talents. At least four groups and one or two soloists sang, all of whom had worked with Miss Mable through the years. And almost all of them sang the “old songs” that she loved: “I Hold a Clear Title to a Mansion,” “Heaven’s Jubilee,” Beulah Land,” “Jesus Holds the Key,” “What a Day That Will Be,” and others. Before singing, each talked about Miss Mable and the influence she had on them, or the moments they remembered. One that touched me in particular resonated with the prayers that were held throughout the evening. This soloist was with Miss Mable when she died, and she told the crowd, “it’s such a sweet thing when you know someone has left to be with Jesus.” The prayers and scripture reading –1 Corinthians 15 (“we’ll be changed in the twinkling of an eye”)–focused on the transformation of death, and the victory that is had in death, the kind of transformation that Cookie’s elegy describes.

The music and its performance also focused on transformation, on substance rather than on style. Because many of the singers were (well) over 65, and those that weren’t had been closely trained by Miss Mable, I felt like I was hearing the music as it had been performed 40, 50, or 60 years ago. This was not like watching a Christian version of American Idol–the singers did not imitate styles heard on the radio and showing off would have been out of line. Rather, they were up there to pay tribute to Jesus and to Miss Mable. For the most part, soloists had a strong, clear, solid tone, they didn’t sing around the melody or waver from the tune, and some of their intonation was about as near to perfect as you could get. The choirs who backed them up emphasized a clear communication of the lyrics–it was the message of love, salvation, and gratitude that they wanted you to hear. You could hear all the harmony parts–the melody didn’t drown out the harmonies but all were balanced and unified. There was no shouting, no hallelujahs, no hand-raising like you see in some Lumbee churches; this service was all about restraint, moderation, and careful praise, everyone playing their role and no one standing out. It was about the experience of the group singing and praising, and I think Miss Mable would have been proud.