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State honors tribes during American Indian Heritage Month, some question sincerity

Jason Evans, a member of the Haliwa Saponi Tribe, performs music as Occaneechi tribal members listen at the Occaneechi Replica Village rededication event on Saturday, April 23, 2022.

On Nov. 2, Gov. Roy Cooper proclaimed November as American Indian Heritage Month to celebrate the eight state-recognized tribes: The Coharie, Eastern Band of Cherokee, Haliwa-Saponi, Lumbee, Meherrin, Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation, Sappony and Waccamaw Siouan. 

Former President George H. W. Bush proclaimed the original National American Indian Heritage Month in 1990.  

“Long before European explorers set foot on the North American continent, this great land has been cultivated and cherished by generations of American Indians," Bush said in the proclamation.    

Since then, the month has continued to serve as an opportunity to honor the cultures and histories of American Indian tribes within North Carolina and across the country. 

Pamela Cashwell, secretary of the N.C. Department of Administration, said North Carolina doesn’t need to wait for one month of the year to celebrate American Indian heritage and culture.      

Despite this, she added that the month provides a chance to showcase the great cultures and art that stem out of American Indian communities.               

“The month gives us the opportunity to be focused and reflective,” she said. 

The DOA houses the Commission of Indian Affairs that provides programs and services for American Indians in North Carolina.     

“The Commission has been around for 50 years now, and we work very closely with the eight state-recognized tribes in North Carolina as well as the four urban organizations that are located in the state,” she said. 

In May 2021, the N.C. General Assembly created the American Indian Heritage Commission under the N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources in addition to the Commission of Indian Affairs.   

Kerry Bird, the director of this commission, is a citizen of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate and has Lumbee tribal heritage. He said the establishment of the commission was “long overdue." He added that it provides opportunities for American Indians to participate in programming with the DNCR. 

“We are a part of the general public and it’s nice to do things that are reflective of who we are and will include us in the programming that the department provides,” he said.

Greg Jacobs, the tribal administrator for the Coharie Tribe, said the Commission of Indian Affairs stands as the gateway between the different tribes and the North Carolina government.

“I think they have actually opened the doors to the visibility and the unique needs of the Indigenous populations,” he said.  

Greg Jacobs said the month serves to highlight the Indigenous peoples of the land to the public and explained that tribes have been hidden from view, especially in the South.

Bird said it’s important for all citizens to realize tribal communities are alive and well in their communities and are making considerable contributions to society as a whole.

“We’re students, we’re workers, we’re doctors, we’re business owners. So, we exist today much differently than people tend to think about us,” he said. 

Michael Jacobs, the chief of the Waccamaw Siouan Tribe, said American Indian Heritage Month emphasizes inclusion and highlights American Indian tribes. 

“We’re not putting on a show and we’re not dressing up to be something we’re not,” he said. 

In addition to the benefits of visibility due to the celebration of American Indian Heritage Month, Michael Jacobs noted concern about only celebrating Indigenous cultures for one month.

“It’s sort of disturbing when you single down a custumal heritage to just 30 days or a month,” he said.

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He also said American Indians loved America before it was America. He emphasized thinking about the effects of all decisions on future generations.

“We need to leave this land better than when we found it and to where the seventh generation can still enjoy what we enjoy if not to a better degree," he said.

On Nov. 19, the N.C. Museum of History will observe the 27th Annual American Indian Heritage Celebration. The event will include activities, exhibits, storytelling, dances, songs and food from the eight tribes.

@DTHCityState |