By Kerria Weaver
Nancy Strickland Fields serves as director and curator of the Museum of the Southeast American Indian located on UNC Pembroke’s campus, working for the museum since 2017.
As director and curator, Fields, 50, makes sure the public is made aware of the history, art, and culture of Native Americans in their own communities.
The Border Belt Independent asked Fields about her journey to becoming director of the museum and its importance to the community.
Q. Where did you grow up?
I split my time between here, which is Pembroke, and Charlotte. My mom left Pembroke in the 1950s and went to Charlotte to escape the Jim Crow South.
Q. What was your childhood like?
I grew up in Indian education in Charlotte, which had a huge influence on my life. My Indian education director was Rosa Winfrey, director of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Indian Education Program and very accomplished in Indian education. She passed away some years ago, but she had a huge impact on a lot of Native students’ lives, especially when I was growing up in the 70s in the 80s. She really empowered us, almost as an extension of the civil rights movement, especially for Native kids. Both Rosa and my mom were just powerful in their own ways.
Q. What career were you interested in pursuing growing up?
I wanted to be a kind of history teacher. My mom encouraged me to do something where I could make more money, and so I actually took a bit of a non-traditional life path.
When I was 19 I was a single mom, and so me, my mom, and my daughter were living together. My mom got really sick with diabetes and congestive heart failure and kidney failure for about three or four years and passed away when I was 23.
I didn’t have a lot of family and it was a really difficult time. I was working as an administrator in a business office and I was pretty good at accounting, but I was miserable, just not happy. I ended up finding a job at Metrolina Native American Association in Charlotte and worked with this incredible lady named Lisa Strickland. Her son and I grew up together in Indian education. She really empowered me through the role. I was actually the fiscal officer but then I loved to do programming. She showed me the ropes, and once I got my feet wet, there was no turning back.
This is what I wanted to do, but I only made $7 an hour, so it wasn’t enough to take care of me and my daughter. This was around 1997 or 1998. There were a lot of times we didn’t have food and our utilities would be turned off and I thought, ‘I just can’t.’
Q. How did you go about looking for a more financially stable career?
I was ready to look for something else, and not having a college degree made my search difficult. I did a lot of praying and the Lord answered my prayers. I was taking some students to Washington D.C., for this program that gives them exposure to the federal government. There was a guy named Caleb Strickland, who’s also Lumbee and worked for the National Museum of the American Indian. We were touring their collections facility when he told me how it would be wonderful for me to work there. I thought, ‘How do I do that?’ He told me about the Institute of American Indian Arts where I could get a degree and come back to work for the museum. He might as well have told me to get in a rocket ship and fly to the moon and walk on the moon and come back. It just seemed absolutely impossible to me.
I ended up reaching out to the Institute of American Indian Arts and they sent me an application. With the help of Lisa I applied and I was shocked that I got in. I absolutely couldn’t believe it. Long story short, after a lot of being terrified, deliberating, praying and doing all these things, I ended up selling much of everything I had and went to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where I went to school. It was a bit of a challenge because I had never been there before and I was getting my daughter and myself together. Helen Maynor Scheirbeck, who was the deputy director of the National Museum of American Indian (NMAI), reached out to me. She was also Lumbee. She asked me if I seriously wanted to work in NAMI, and I said, ‘Absolutely.’ She told me once I finished my degree, and when the time came, we would connect.
I reached out to her six months before I graduated and she recommended a few positions to apply for and how to go about the federal application process. I eventually got a job interview and received a job offer. I would always say my mom was my guardian angel and helped me through things, but many other people helped along the way as well.
Q. How did you find yourself with your current position at UNCP?
For a few years I worked at NMAI. The work was great but the home life was challenging. Around this time my daughter was a teenager. We would leave our house at 6:30 in the morning to go to school and work because I had a long commute. I wouldn’t get home until 8 in the evening and this wasn’t good for us.
I ended up getting a job offer while I was at NMAI for the American Cultural Center Museum in Oklahoma City. A friend of mine worked there and asked me to come out and work in education, and the timing was perfect. I was there for about eight-and-a-half years and worked with a lot of wonderful people and great tribes, the 39 tribes that were removed to Oklahoma. Then I thought it was time to come home. At this point I had been gone for almost 15 years. I was in my mid 40s and my daughter just had a baby, and it was time for us to come back to the community. I bought a house and decided I was going to move home and figure it out. Then UNCP called me about the position I have now and so I applied and got it. In January I will have been here for seven years.
Q. When was the museum established?
The museum started in 1974. We’re actually having our 50th anniversary next year.
Q. Is there anything planned for the 50th anniversary?
We are planning things now. We’re going to have a capital campaign, a gala event, and we are going to put together a digital exhibition that looks back on 50 years. We’re also trying to develop a community engagement aspect. I think it would be really cool for us to do a time capsule on campus, and then for the 100th anniversary folks can open it up.
Q. What is the connection between the museum and UNCP?
UNCP was started as an Indian school in 1887. It was known as the Croata Indian School. The folks that helped found the museum itself really came from the addition of the American Indian Studies program. Also, during the 1970s tribal museums were opening across the country. Originally the building was a collecting room, like a small museum, but then the building burned in the early 70s. Later on the space was reconfigured and a bigger museum was rebuilt. That was in 1979.
Q. Does the museum have student workers or volunteers helping with operations?
We have both student workers and volunteers. Our student workers have a couple of different opportunities. We have student volunteers, internships and work study. We also have volunteers from our community who come in and help that aren’t students.
Q. What would you say is your most popular exhibit?
We’ve had so many, but definitely the top was the de Bry exhibit. It was on loan to us from the Ackland (museum at UNC Chapel Hill) and it was titled ‘Newfoundland.’ We changed it to ‘Intersection of Worlds.’ ‘Visual Voices’ was a great exhibition. We also do a really fun show annually called the ‘9/9 Native South Community Art Show.’ The name of the show comes from the date it opens annually, which is Sept. 9. The show allows us to know what people are doing in the community, what kind of art they’re creating, what issues are being tackled in art, and who are the artists we should be collecting. People can also buy art from the show, it’s a really fun engaging show.
Q. Can the public donate art or artifacts to the museum?
We have an acquisitions process, a collecting mission here like most museums do. So we determine if it has the right kind of provenance, what stories is it telling, who did it belong to, does it fall within the scope of Native peoples in the Southeast region of the United States, the condition it’s in, and if it’s something we can manage in our collections and help preserve?
Q. On average, how long does an exhibit stay on display?
We have two permanent exhibitions and we usually rotate out two shows a year. Just because it takes so much time to curate an exhibition, we typically give them about five months of lifespan. Since we’re rural, this gives all of our different populations of demographics a chance to come and see them and gives us a chance to build programs around the exhibitions.
Q. How many people on average come to visit the museum?
Our annual visitorship is about 6,000 people and that’s just the general public, which doesn’t count students. We usually have about 20 students come in on an average day. We say probably three to four elementary to high schools a week come to visit the museum and that starts from September through November and picks back up around March to April.
Q. What’s the most interesting thing you’ve heard when people come to visit the museum?
I think that a very common response is that people don’t know there were Native peoples still here. We also hear a lot of, ‘I didn’t realize that Native people contributed so much to the South’ in terms of how our objects teach. Our canoes are an example. People don’t realize that we stood in our canoes, we didn’t sit in them. So when they learn about our river or water traditions and canoeing, they’re really fascinated by that.
Q. What do you hope people will take away when visiting the museum?
Our goal is to educate people about the diversity of Native peoples in the southeast so they understand that we’re not kind of living in a bubble that is exterior to Southern society. We are part of the South and we make major contributions to the South historically and in the present day. Our hope is for people to understand the complications of our historical experience and how that impacts a more recent history and modern date. I want people to learn through our exhibitions and our programs about a variety of topics and to be open to what we have to share.