By Sarah Nagem
Malinda Maynor Lowery has long been educating the public about the Lumbee tribe’s history and culture, from its roots in what is now eastern North Carolina to the racism tribal members endured during the Jim Crow era.
In a new short film, “Lumbeeland,” Maynor Lowery aims to shed light on a dark and persistent struggle that plagues the community many Lumbees call home: The drug trade that fuels much of the economy.
“For me,” Maynor Lowery said in a recent interview, “the question has always been, is there any way to feel other than shame or anger?”
Maynor Lowery, a member of the tribe and an American history professor at Emory University in Atlanta, wrote and produced “Lumbeeland,” which will premiere at the Lumbee Film Festival next July. A fundraising campaign is underway to release the film to a wider audience.
The film tells the story of Dollar, a drug dealer and single father. “He represents a generation of Lumbee men that were raised to participate in drug trafficking in the 1980s and 1990s,” Maynor Lowery said.
When Dollar is disrespected by his kingpin grandfather – “Doc,” played by former Lumbee Tribal Chairman Harvey Godwin Jr. – the young man is forced to re-evaluate the relationships in his life.
While the film is fictional, Maynor Lowery said the story represents the drug culture that defines much of life in Robeson County, home to the Lumbee tribe. Robeson is one of the poorest counties in the state with one of the highest violent crime rates. The county saw a 49% jump in drug overdose deaths between 2019 and 2021, more than double the statewide increase.
Maynor Lowery said the “collective trauma” of living in a community fueled by drugs leads to substance misuse, gun violence and food insecurity. “I don’t think it’s acceptable anymore to call these individual problems,” she said. “These are systemic failures that we have not been able to address.”
After seeing those failures unfold in her own family, she said, “I kind of just put my foot down and said, have we tried art? Have we tried storytelling as a way to deal with not just the symptom of the problem, but the root of the problem?”
Maynor Lowery, who attended Harvard, Stanford and UNC-Chapel Hill, has published two books about the Lumbee tribe – ”Lumbee Indians in the Jim Crow South: Race, Identity, and the Making of a Nation” in 2010 and “The Lumbee Indians: An American Struggle” in 2018.
She has produced several documentaries since the late 1990s, including the Peabody Award-winning “A Chef’s Life” on PBS from 2013 to 2018 and “Private Violence,” a 2014 HBO film that was nominated for an Emmy.
“Lumbeeland” came into focus at the Lumbee Film Festival in 2022. That’s when Maynor Lowery met Montana Cypress, an artist and member of the Miccosukee tribe in South Florida, who agreed to direct the film.
The project secured a grant from Vision Maker Media, which supports and encourages Native American storytelling. “It was more than just the money,” Maynor Lowery said of the grant. “It was permission to do something new.”
Honey Head Films, a women-led production company in Wilmington, produced “Lumbeeland.”
It was important to tap into her own community to recruit on-screen and off-screen talent, Maynor Lowery said. When the film was shot in May in the town of Red Springs, she said, 24 of the 34 people on set were Native American, including 22 members of the Lumbee tribe.
Dozens of background actors participated, and the theater department at UNC Pembroke provided props for the film.
“I was just so amazed that once we put it out there, we saw people answer the call,” Maynor Lowery said. “Door after door has opened.”
The goal, she said, is for the film to lead to meaningful community discussions about how a drug economy leads to significant struggles that are often misunderstood.
“The reason for the struggle is not always our own failing,” Maynor Lowery said. “We can turn to one another with compassion to address that struggle.”