As Professor Malinda Maynor Lowery’s student in the spring of 2010, I had the unique privilege of reading “Lumbee Indians in the Jim Crow South” the semester it was published, while engaging in classroom discussions on the same themes that were presented in the text. It was exciting to see the same ideas that emerged from our classroom conversations echoed and organized in Malinda’s writing. Malinda, as always, does an excellent job of taking questions about Indian identity and tearing apart the preconceived categories and stereotypes embedded in them. “Lumbee Indians in the Jim Crow South” is not just a history of the Lumbee, but a methodical attack on every false and small idea of what it means to be an Indian.
She begins by pointing out that what it means to be Indian has changed over time. She explains that, contrary to long cherished ideas about Indians as aloof and unchanging, “…geographic movement (rather than attachment to one specific place) and expansive attitudes about adoption and cultural change (resulting in racial mixing and cultural adaptation) more accurately describe Indian groups historically. Yet their identities as Indians do not dissipate as a result of these changes.” This idea is very freeing. It makes sense that Indians today would be a changing and diverse group of people, just as they were before Europeans entered America and just as other groups of people are. However, this reality is often written out of the cultural script of Indianness and diverse tribes are dismissed as less than whole. Malinda writes, “…I am less concerned with demonstrating that the Lumbee are Indians and more concerned with excavating the category of “Indian” itself and how the category shifts, both over time and within moments and conversations.”
After demonstrating that change should be a part of the Indian identity equation, Malinda discusses internal conflict, for Indian groups are often expected to be homogenous as well as unchanging. Malinda points out how unrealistic and unhealthy this expectation is. She writes, “Indian victimization did not produce all political disagreements; many were the product of Indian agency.” In other words, Indians changing and approaching problems in different ways is not a sign of cultural trauma, but of, as historian Robert Berkhofer phrases it, “individuals coping creatively in a variety of ways.” Malinda reminds her readers that tribes are nations. “[Nations] are politically divided (sometimes bitterly so), but citizens consent to these disagreements and share a sense of their value.” Indian tribes, like nations, should be allowed the freedom to have internal factions, and to approach issues in a range of ways, without it changing their overall group status.
In writing “Lumbee Indians in the Jim Crow South” Malinda writes about so much more than the history of one tribe. In her preface alone she debunks both the myth of the unchanging Indian and the myth of homogenous tribe. Malinda is a historian of Lumbee history not to prove that the Lumbee fit the Indian category, but to show that the Indian category does not fit Indians.