By Kerria Weaver
When Kevin Melvin became the historic preservation officer for the Lumbee tribe last summer, he dedicated himself to reminding others what makes their culture special.
“A lot of our people here go about their day, and they don’t even realize the things they say or eat are unique to our tribe,” said Melvin, 39.
So Melvin decided to re-launch the tribe’s free cultural workshops that had been paused during the coronavirus pandemic. Now, participants gather every Monday at the Boys & Girls Club in Pembroke to learn about basket weaving, dancing, music and more.
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“These workshops are to educate our people on how the things they do on a daily basis is unique to us, as Lumbee people and as Native people as a whole,” Melvin said.
As the largest American Indian tribe east of the Mississippi River, the Lumbees have 55,000 members. Many of them live in Robeson and surrounding counties in southeastern North Carolina, where their tribal name was derived from the Lumber River.
North Carolina has recognized the Lumbees as an official tribe since 1885, and the federal government granted partial recognition in 1956. Lumbee people have been pushing for generations for full federal recognition, which would bring millions of dollars to the tribe for public initiatives such as health care and education.
Some critics have argued before Congress that the tribe lacks cultural markers such as an official language – a narrative that frustrates many tribal members.
Tribal Chairman John Lowery told the Border Belt Independent in April that he was confident Congress would pass full federal recognition this year.
“We have more support within Indian Country than we’ve ever had before,” Lowery said at the time. “We hear from a lot of tribes that they’re tired of us not having the recognition that we deserve.”
As a child, Melvin said he learned about Lumbee culture from tribal elders. He said he did not fully understand the significance of his American Indian heritage until he moved away and felt the pressures of being a minority.
During colonization, many traditions and ceremonies held by the Lumbees and many other tribes were illegal to practice and had to be done in secret. Into the 20th century, including during Jim Crow, American Indians faced discrimination. They had to drink from separate water fountains and weren’t allowed to use whites-only restrooms.
Now, Melvin is shining a new light on what makes his people special.
The cultural workshops allow up to 30 participants – and classes have been full. They’re open to everyone, not just tribal members.
Magally Ortiz-Rojas, a student at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, said she began attending in mid-March and tries to go every week.
“Being outside the culture, I was afraid to attend the culture workshops, but everyone has been so welcoming and excited to have us,” Rojas said. “I encourage anyone in Pembroke to come learn about Native American culture through these workshops.”
Cyan Vang, an undergraduate admissions representative at UNC Pembroke, also attends.
“I am not Native, but I began learning about Native culture in 2020 through a summer internship and became close to Native friends,” Vang said. “These workshops are important to me to pay homage to the indigenous people and learn about their history.”
Melvin said he had intended to make a new schedule for fall, but he decided to repeat the spring workshops to give people who missed the classes another chance to attend. He said he has gotten feedback on potential workshops moving forward, including lessons on traditional foods and hunting and fishing.
“What makes the Lumbee tribe so special to me is everything,” Melvin said, “from the people, the food, culture, and the land.”