I grew up in a Native American community in Robeson County, which holds a rich heritage and wonderful legacy. Even though the county has had a history of racial, social, and educational struggles, we were taught to be proud as Lumbee people. Two of the core values and cornerstones held by our forefathers were religion and education.
Life, as I knew it, was normal and good. Both my parents were educators. My dad was a minister. Everyone knew their boundaries within the county. We had our own college and bank, and most Lumbees were in church on Sundays and Wednesday night. The Lumbee community was a wonderful microcosm of a strong Native American community, east of the Mississippi River and beyond.
I, too, am a product of the desire and importance of education. I wanted a Master’s degree so I could somehow make a difference and help Indian people. An opportunity presented itself through a scholarship with the National Institutes of Mental Health, for me to attend the University of Oklahoma. I was so excited to know that my dreams were coming true. I was leaving my home Native community and going to a state with large communities of Native people to get my Master’s degree – a Lumbee woman, a widow, a mother with a small child.
When I arrived, there were whispers and lots of talk within the Department. What did a Lumbee look like? She probably is a half-breed and not a real Indian. Real Indians are federally-recognized. She could not be very smart, probably chews tobacco and talks with a deep southern drawl. Of course, she has knotty hair and walks barefoot. No one had ever seen a Lumbee Indian – the largest state-recognized tribe east of the Mississippi.
The department and professors were excited about this new endeavor with NIMH scholarship program for Native Americans. Graduate classes began and were diversified, with many of the western Native people. I was the only Native American from east of the Mississippi. The dynamics quickly began to change with racist innuendos, and ridicule began to raise its ugly head.
The time came when a guest speaker came from Washington to talk about Native research. Instead, the speaker began to berate, belittle, and down-grade Lumbee Indians. How could he say those awful words? These people did not know me, my cultural heritage, or who the Lumbee people are. This program was designed to prepare me to develop policies and conduct research that would positively impact all Native Americans from a socio-economic perspective. I thought I was coming to work and study with fellow Native people who also had a rich legacy, who were like me, or so I thought. I did not enroll for this type of study. It took this experience to make me realize that racism did exist, even between state and federal tribes!
I was discouraged, disillusioned and ready to go home. It took a non-Indian fellow classmate, a Jew, to offer words of wisdom and encouragement. I began to look at this as a time of preparation and sacrifice that would open doors and allow me to be a voice for greater advocacy, power and influence, not only for Native Americans but for the poor, needy and oppressed.
Paul reminds us in Galatians “there is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female; for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.”
I have grown tremendously as a result of this program and this experience. I never dreamed that the Creator of us all would allow me to be in positions to assist with writing policy and legislation, to advocate and to speak to such great audiences. To God be the glory!