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Lumbee Indians in the Jim Crow South

By Malinda Maynor Lowery

In her book Lumbee Indians in the Jim Crow South, Dr. Malinda Maynor Lowery explores how the identities of the Lumbee Indians of Robeson County were shaped in Robeson County over time. This identity is described in terms of layers. Lowery draws on personal conversation or Interviews and also the work of Gerald Sider and Karen Blu to tell the story of Indian identity in Robeson County. In addition, she also relies on non-written records such as oral history and photographs that were selected based on the method of autoethnography. Lowery describes identity as a fluid dialogue between insiders and outsiders. Being placed in the category of Indian is also fluid over time, moments, and conversations.  The account of a personal conversation with a Lumbee is used to demonstrate how place and kinship are the foundation of Indian identity. The Indian New Deal policies will be examined in reference to its role in shaping self-determination, governance and race and identity ideas.  The book will also explore the link between factionalism and identity.  Lowery states that the names used to identify Indians in Robeson County resulted from political circumstances. The book will show that race is assigned for strategic purposes in addition to being ascribed by dominant groups.  While the book will explore the shaping of Indian identities it is important to note that the Lumbee rarely questioned who they were, but rather their struggle has been for recognition and sovereignty. People, race, tribe, and nation are the four layers of Native American Identity in the book.

In the introduction, the coalescence of the Indians in Robeson County is explained during a time when the foundation of kinship and settlement was laid out. The visit to Robeson County from members of the Office of Indian Affairs (OIA) in 1936 was supposed to help Indians in their fight for recognition; however, it promoted white supremacy like Jim Crow. The Indian community hoped that the visit would bring needed help to the community in areas such as the schools. At this time Pembroke boasted Indian-run businesses, churches, and schools. Despite Indian power in the town, white supremacy was still present and subject Indians to prejudice. Indians were still non-white and therefore faced discrimination; in addition they were not black and therefore elicited frustrations from blacks.  Joseph Brook and Jim Chavis, members of General Council of Siouan Indians, met with the OIA representatives. OIA representative came to Robeson County to examine physical feature in an attempt to determine who was Indian and who was not, an effort that failed. The visit from OIA revealed how government and Robeson County have conflicting views on what it means to be Indian.

Lowery goes on to explain how Lumbee and Tuscarora Indians of Robeson County are the result of migration and cultural exchange between many tribes over about 300 years. Three language families are said to belong to these people: Siouan, Iroquoian, and Algonkian, according to archaeologists and anthropologists. This migration and integration of different tribes could be the reason that tribal language is lost to Indians in this region, coming together would have been difficult without speaking a common language, English. Oral tradition credits the Roanoke River, Pamlico Sound, and the Outer Banks and the piedmont regions of North Carolina as the regions that these Indian people originated. Kinship was used to govern and identify as Indian. Kinship was first a matrilineal system that later became patrilineal. Owning land came about in three possible ways: grants, purchases, or occupation prior to English settlement. Indians were identified by there connection to settlements and families. Locale strengthened family and cultural values as well as social relations in the Indian community.  The claim that Lumbee’s have multiracial ancestry may be the result of intermarrying. It is important to note that intermarriage is not distinct to the Lumbee people, but also occurred throughout history in many tribes. The 1854 constitution stripped some Lumbee’s civil rights event thought the bill did not name Indians.  Shortly after this time the era of Henry Berry Lowry took place which ties together the aspects of Indian belonging: reciprocity, kinship, and settlement.


1)      Lowery’s book explores the formation of identity among Indians of Robeson County. How did separate schools allow for the formation of Indian Identity or add to the notion of being Indian?

2)      The OIA stated that “these people did not have a clear understanding of the term Indian.”  How do Lumbee’s understand the term Indian today, in particular how do Lumbee Indian students in a predominately Indian High School (Purnell Sweat) describe what it means to be Indian.


Interview with Carnell Locklear by Malinda Maynor, February 24, 2004 Interview #U-0007, in the Southern Oral History Program Collection #4007, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Meeting with NASA Students at Purnell Sweat High School on March 16, 2010.

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