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North Carolina creators pay homage to Native American heritage through art

Ethan Oxendine, a traditional flutist and dancer, is a member of the Lumbee and Tuscarora tribes. Oxendine plays the courting flute, a Native American instrument that represents an old story. Photo Courtesy of Ethan Oxendine.

Art has marked the presence of Native American culture in North Carolina for thousands of years.

Rock petroglyphs, such as the carvings on Judaculla Rock in Jackson County, are artistic indicators of Native American peoples who have inhabited the state for more than 10,000 years. 

Today, the breadth and variety of Native American art forms in North Carolina are a far cry from glyphs carved into boulders. The artistry and mediums are as diverse as the eight state-recognized tribes that live in North Carolina today. 

During Native American Heritage Month in November, events across the state offered Native American basketmakers, dancers, musicians, storytellers, painters, potters and silversmiths an opportunity to share their work. The month highlights a fraction of the artistry and culture of Native American artists in the state.

“Native American Heritage Month in November really gives us an outlet and a means of telling different people about who we are, but we're not Native American just during November,” Ethan Oxendine, a member of the Lumbee and Tuscarora tribes, said. “We're Native American every day.”

Oxendine is a traditional flutist and dancer. He plays the courting flute, a Native American instrument which Oxendine said represents an old story. The first courting flute is said to have been carved from a willow branch and its sound given to it by a songbird.

The courting flute has no sheet music or practice books, so Oxendine said he practices, consults other flute players and plays from the heart.

He started dancing during his senior year of high school. Attending culture classes and powwows allowed him to immerse himself in dancing, which he described as a means of prayer and healing.

Dancing represents history and heritage, he said. Traditional Native American dances were banned by the United States government in 1883. Though the code was repealed 50 years later, to Oxendine, learning and performing powwow dances is a process of storytelling and cultural reclamation.

“We're not just a part of the history books and the movies and TV — we're actual people,” he said. “We’re still living and breathing and we're still singing our songs and doing our dances and living this way of life every day.”


Photo Courtesy of Norma Jean Locklear-Richardson.

Norma Jean Locklear-Richardson is a textile artist and a member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina. She runs Skyworld Stitches with her daughter Stevie Lowry designing and sewing ribbon skirts and embroidered regalia. 

Ribbon skirts, rather than representing any one tribe, are an artwork shared by many tribes across the United States. They are a relatively recent tradition, emerging from ribbon traded from European settlers in the late 18th century. 

Locklear-Richardson, who has been making regalia for around 20 years,  said that in the past 10 to 15 years, ribbon skirts have become more casual wear, allowing Native American women a means of displaying their culture in their everyday wardrobe and saving the regalia for special events.

She incorporates an individual’s favorite colors, tribe colors and personal interests to create a personalized representation of their culture and identity. Detailed embroidery sits atop vibrant fabrics in between a rainbow of appliquéd satin and ric rac ribbons, each tailored to the wearer.

Locklear-Richardson taught Lowry to sew when she was 13 years old. Lowry danced in powwows, wearing regalia sewn by her mother, even before that. Now, as an adult, she makes her own. 

“I like having different outlets that I can use — being able to dance and create the things that I wear while I'm dancing,” Lowry said. “It really means more than anything.”

Though artists like Oxendine and Locklear-Richardson celebrate art forms with deep roots in history and cultural identity, some deviate from those art forms through new mediums and intersecting identities.

Christopher Kennedy’s drawings stray from the expectation of Native American traditional art. He is a self-taught contemporary artist and a member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina.

Though several of his past drawings highlight his Lumbee heritage, he tends to focus on more technical challenges and broad themes.

Kennedy's social media pages show the dozens of hours he spends making hyper-realistic colored pencil drawings—mostly hands—reach seemingly off the page. Several of his drawings feature other aspects of human anatomy, like eyes and faces, but hands dominate his portfolio.

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Artist Christopher Kennedy poses next to his piece, “2020,” at the Fuquay Arts Center. Photo Courtesy of Heather Kennedy.

“You talk with your mouth, you look with your eyes — but you touch and feel with your hands,” he said. “I think it's just a bigger, larger universal theme about people when I think about hands.”

Though he is drawn to themes beyond race, identity and gender, he said does not identify any less with his Native American heritage.

“Because I’m Native American, the artwork that I do is Native American,” he said.

“Quilter of the Tribes” Medium: Oil Paint (around 2007) Photo Courtesy of Christopher Kennedy.


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