When I was little, I considered my upbringing very normal. Every year we went to Pow-wows and I learned several prayers from my grandfather from our people. I had a box on my bookshelf full of little knick-knacks that I would, hopefully, one day put on my cultural regalia. I was always told it was important to hang on to my Lumbee culture.
Over the years, my mother gave me feathers for my hair and reminded me what each feather meant. I was given a wooden flute to learn the songs of my people and books to read about our history. My mother encouraged me to learn sewing as well, so maybe one day I could design my own regalia.
As I grew up, I found out that I was actually quite different than the rest of my family. I look extremely white – sometimes like we weren’t even related.
We trace our lineage through the Locklears and Lowerys. My grandfather married a white woman, and my mother married a white man, so really – I am mostly German in heritage, but my cousin who has the same ethnic background (her father is also white) looks more Native than I do. Over the years, I found myself asking why God made me look so different.
I actually really disliked the color of my skin growing up because it didn’t match what I thought I was supposed to look. When I went to groups of Native Americans and brought up that I had Native heritage, people would look at like me like, “Yeah right! Look at you.” Of course, nobody said anything, but I always felt like an imposter in my own skin.
Lumbees surround a lot of social life around the church. After I converted to Islam, I felt a bigger divide between my cultural background and who I am in some ways. I am not the only Native American Muslim I’ve met, but I have yet to meet another from my people. My mother has warned me that I might be even less accepted now that I am not Christian.
Since the tribe is out of North Carolina, I haven’t had the money to go visit them since I was a child. I can’t even remember what Pembroke looks like – the town our family is from. I only remember the red clay soil – something that fascinated me as a child. I yearn to return again.
What many don’t realize is that I still meet blood quantum, a controversial practice done in the United States that means you must have at least one fully Native-American grandparent to qualify as being a part of the tribe. Some tribes don’t require blood quantum but ours does. Sadly, I will be the last one with a link to my people since I also married a non-Native individual.
Identity is intricate. My tribe is also one of the few in the United States without recognition by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The ancestors of the Lumbee have lived in the area of current-day Robeson County since the 1700s. In 1956, the Lumbee Act was passed to recognize that our people were Indian but somehow not Indian enough to count federally. However, we are still fighting to be fully recognized to this day.
I just started to explore what my cultural background means for me and how I wish to identify. I can’t shake the feeling of how important this is to me. I am excited to see where my journey of personal exploration takes me.