David and Native American History

The history of Native American peoples is the history of America. I write about American Indian peoples because I find their history fascinating, instructive, and just as valid as Roman History, British History, the History of Technology, and any that is out there. Sometimes it’s not pretty. But it’s always riveting.

This Day in Indian History

 

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Remembering the Tuscarora War and Native North Carolinians

Right now, North Carolina is at the beginning of a four year long celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. However, September 22, 2011 is the 300th anniversary of the beginning of the Tuscarora War in North Carolina. Though long forgotten, it was just as important to North Carolina as the Civil War.
At dawn on September 22, 1711, after years of abuse by settlers and traders, 500 warriors from the Neuse River Tuscaroras, Cores, Pamlicos, Machapungas, Neuse, and Bay River Indians attacked plantations and farms between the Pamlico and Neuse Rivers. Within hours over 130 settlers were killed, many more wounded, and a few score taken prisoner. The area was devastated and the North Carolina colonial government was powerless to respond. It took two expeditions from South Carolina and their Siouan, Yamasee, and Cherokee allies to bring an end to the war. By the time the fighting ended in 1715, hundreds of eastern North Carolina Indians had been killed, while well over a thousand had been marched off to South Carolina as slaves. Those who survived either left the colony, faded into the swamps, or became “tributary Indians” to North Carolina. With eastern North Carolina Indian power broken, now the way was open for the settlement of the Piedmont .
In a way, the Tuscarora War set the colony, and later the state of North Carolina, on its present path of Indian relations – making Indian nations into tributaries. As tributaries, Indian nations paid a few deer skins to the governor each year as a symbol of the authority of the North Carolina government over them. The North Carolina government approved who could be “chief,” could set up and assign Indians to reservations, and essentially make law for the Indians. The federal government took much the same tactic when it came into being in 1788. However, though they were “tributary nations,” there was still an implicit recognition by North Carolina that they were “Indians” and a separate political entity with certain rights and privileges. “Domestic dependant nations” would be how the United States Supreme Court would define them in 1831.
Fast forward to 2011. North Carolina has a Native American population that is pushing toward a hundred thousand. In fact, it has the largest American Indian population of any state east of the Mississippi River. It has one federally recognized Indian tribe – the Eastern Band of Cherokees near Cherokee, NC – and eleven tribes or organizations only state-recognized. These include the Lumbees of Robeson County, Coharies in Clinton, Haliwa-Saponis in Hollister, Meherrins in Winton, Occaneechis in Mebane, Sappony in Roxboro, Waccamaw Siouans in Bolton, and four urban Indian organizations: Cumberland County Association for Indian People in Fayetteville, Guilford Native American Association in Greensboro, Metrolina Native American Association in Charlotte, and the Triangle Native American Society in Raleigh. While these state-recognized tribes and organizations can elect their own leaders now, they are still very much in the eyes of North Carolina “tributary nations.”
Back in the 1990s, when the Eastern Band of Cherokees wanted to open a casino on reservation lands, something allowed them by the federal government, the North Carolina government at first wouldn’t even negotiate with them. It took prodding by the federal government and years of negotiation between the tribe and North Carolina before the Cherokees got their casino. But the state only allowed video games and slots while helping itself to a hefty cut of the take worth millions of dollars annually.
For the Lumbees of Robeson County, descendants of shattered Siouan nations from the Carolina Piedmont, such as the Cheraw, it would have been better had they fought a war with the United States. That would have generated a peace treaty, implicit recognition as an Indian nation, and probably a reservation. With only a quasi-recognition by the federal government, the Lumbees have an almost tributary status with North Carolina. Recent Lumbee discussions on creating a reservation have been strongly rebuffed by many citizens and state officials, believing a reservation will lead to casino gambling.
Who knows what will become of these Indian endeavors. But here on the 300th anniversary of the Tuscarora War, the outcome of that war still haunts both Native North Carolinians and the North Carolina government.

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Of Wannabes and Indians

When I first got my job here at UNCW teaching Native American history, a terrible thought briefly crossed my mind. I thought what great moral authority I would have with the students if I was an Indian. Since I’d been studying Southern Plains Indians, I figured if I could say that I was a Caddo or a Comanche, I’d have stature, prestige, and my own little following of students. Fortunately, it took about two seconds for that idea to pass. Clearer thinking made me see how wrong that would be on several levels. First off, it would have been a blatant lie. I was not an Indian on any level – not raised as one, didn’t have a card making me a citizen of any federal or state recognized Indian nation, I had never claimed it, didn’t have the genetic makeup of American Indians, and I didn’t follow any cultural aspects associated with Native Americans. There goes moral authority. Second, trying to pass myself off as something I wasn’t would have been academically dishonest. A simple phone call by anyone to the Comanche or Caddo tribal headquarters would have ratted out my lie. And that would have been a career killer. Third, it would have been an insult to Native American people. To falsely appropriate all the good and the bad that has happened and happens to them is immoral. To falsely advance myself on their backs was something my conscience would not allow. Thank you, Conscience, for working overtime on me. So while I have a great respect for American Indians and their culture, I’m not a “wannabe Indian,” just a white guy who studies Native American history.

But the pull of the “wannabe” is strong. Many people out there wannabe Indians. It’s probably the question I get asked the most : “I have Indian blood in me, so how do I become a member of a tribe?” Nine times out of ten it’s Cherokee blood they claim.
Some of these may be actual Indian people whose ancestors, for many possible reasons, got left off the rolls or moved away and so lost that tribal connection. Those I wish well and try and point them in the right direction. For others, it’s blatant economics. If they’re Indian, they think they can get a scholarship, a check, oil money, gambling money, or something free they think Indians get. For some, it’s something lacking in their own bland lives that by saying they’re Indians would make them special. Indians are cool, and if I’m Indian, then I’m cool. For others it is a spiritual thing. They see Indians as “special” people who have some mystical knowledge or skills that make them at one with nature. I don’t know about that, but Indians are people with all the good and the bad that goes into being human. Still, it’s easy to understand the pull of wanting to be Indian. After all, most of us associate admirable characteristics with Indians, such as bravery, independence, and spirituality. But in reality, this is not what makes Native American special. It is their history. They have a history unlike European Americans or African Americans. And there is power in history.

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Why I Write about American Indian History?

I’m a writer, author, historian, and a university History professor at UNC Wilmington. I mainly write books and articles that deal with American Indian history, though that is also a branch of American History (or North Carolina history, Texas History, Oklahoma history and such). When I meet people, they often ask me questions and usually they’re asking the same questions. So I thought I’d give some answers here.
“How did you get interested in American Indian History?” I was a copywriter at a Dallas advertising agency and I soon realized that the Mad Men life was not for me. But I did enjoy reading history and my colleagues often asked me to tell them history stories. So when I got a chance to get my Master’s in History back in Natchitoches, Louisiana, I decided to take the chance. I found myself drawn to Natchitoches’ French colonial history – it’s the oldest town in the Louisiana Purchase, built around 1714. But it didn’t take me long to see how important the Caddo, Wichita, and Comanche Indians were to French colonial and Natchitoches history. It was Indian horses, deer hides, and friendship that made French and then Spanish Natchitoches prosper. While the French and Spanish may have talked about how they were in charge, in reality, they usually danced to an Indian tune.
The next question is similar: “Why Indian history?” The simple answer is: because it is fascinating! Here you have all these different Indian peoples, as diverse as the different peoples of Europe, and then in the early 1500s they are invaded by an alien, technologically-superior people. And for the next 500 years, Indian people develop all sorts of strategies and agendas for coping with these alien people. They engage in trade. They try to adopt the new technology and often the new beliefs the Europeans bring with them. They make alliances with them. They go to war against them. They try to manipulate the Europeans as much as the Europeans try to manipulate them. And through it all the Native Americans have to deal with new diseases they’ve never experience and so don’t have any immunities. Sometimes these American Indian strategies work. Often times they don’t. Still, what amazes me all the more is not that Indian peoples had horrible things happen to them, but that after 500 years and despite all the European and American attempts to wipe out them and their “Indianness, that Indian peoples survived and are still here today.
Maybe it’s that I’m a sucker for the underdogs. Or maybe it’s that I’m fascinated by the clash of cultures. I like to imagine American History from an Indian’s point of view. Once you do that, everything shifts, and it become a different story. And that’s the stories I like to tell. I hope you’ll enjoy reading them.

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