Career Girl Meets Rock Star

By  |  March 17, 2020
Photographs by Maria Sturm, from the series “You don’t look Native to me,” taken in and around Pembroke, NC Photographs by Maria Sturm, from the series “You don’t look Native to me,” taken in and around Pembroke, NC

A DEFINITION

“Lumbeeland” is not a universal expression. I made it up some years ago, when I was living away from home and wanted to make students, friends, and strangers chuckle as they tried to absorb information about a place they had never heard of. It’s shorthand for the swampy, flat, somewhat remote territory along the border between North and South Carolina that we call home. Historically, our homeland stretched all the way to the James River in Virginia and the Great Peedee River in South Carolina, about forty-four thousand square miles. Today, its formal boundaries are Robeson County and four adjoining counties, encompassing about thirty-two thousand square miles; it has taken hundreds of years for European settlers and their descendants to decide where these borders lie, hundreds of years for them to take that homeland from us, and they still haven’t succeeded. 

Meanwhile, the Lumbee Indians have been here the whole time. Our ancestors created what it means to be Southern before something called “the South” ever existed. Southern hospitality originated with us as we practiced self-determination: fighting, ignoring, trading with, or having babies with the newcomers whose arrival we could not make illegal, nor would we have wanted to. We thrive off of making strangers into kin, so long as those strangers are polite. 

Lumbeeland is not a reservation. In my mind’s eye, I picture fields or trees or water or stories, but my giggling friends said they pictured a theme park, with a monorail. That’s not inaccurate—Lumbeeland is both entertaining and exhausting. When I try to explain to non-Lumbees that my half-siblings (we share the same dad) are also my cousins because our mothers are double first-cousins, their mouths drop open. They might have mastered quantum mechanics or heart surgery, but not this. “Only in Lumbeeland!” I’ll say and smile. Only in Lumbeeland can kinship and place, instead of skin color, tie us together; only in Lumbeeland can our bodies exist even as external forces seek to blow us apart.   

Lumbees think about places as vessels for relationships and stories, and less as locations that can be traced. We imagine our homeland in many layers, as something to be remembered and felt, rather than as a map of landmarks that can only be seen. Lumbeeland is not just a place; it is a relationship between people and their places, marked by the visible and invisible.

 

SUMMER, 2002

Once, a Lumbee boyfriend, Willie, introduced me at a party in Lumbeeland as “one of our career girls,” meaning that I had reached the ripe old age of twenty-nine without having a kid or getting married, an unusual creature who was spending her childbearing years focused on her profession. He was unique, too—the Lumbee national poet and a singer-songwriter with a number-one single under his belt. If I was a career girl, he was a rock star. He understood how wanting to make your people proud also sometimes distanced you from them. 

Willie and I later married. I finished my PhD in history and became a tenured professor and did some job-hopping, winding up back in North Carolina. Willie became very ill the year our daughter Lydia was born, in 2007. When she was four, in May 2012, he died of Parkinson’s-related dementia. Although all the adults around me saw his decline very clearly, it came as a shock to me. Lydia’s earliest years folded over and within his last; I had to believe that both these people, whom I loved so much, would stick around. I cared for him to heal him, and her new life kept me from thinking that his was over. Grasping his lifeless body in the hospital, and then again in his casket, I told him, “I love you to death, I love you to death,” over and over. I did not understand, at least not until later, that my life with him and my love for him meant more than his death. His very life taught me that there’s an ultimate form of healing in death, and that death allowed for a new beginning. 

 

WINTER, 2012

I was now doubly rare—a forty-year-old widow but still a career girl. Single mothers are everywhere in Lumbeeland, though, giving me a new way to belong. At a party the night before Christmas Eve, I met a different sort of Lumbee rock star. Grayson worked in construction, putting up sheetrock among other things, and because Lumbee men have been known throughout the Southeast since the 1980s as the region’s finest and fastest sheetrock workers, we call them “rock stars.” 

Instead of offering me a Bud Light, the Lumbee national beverage, Grayson brought me bourbon. I liked him instantly. After a few minutes spent establishing our respective worlds, I asked him the standard question when two Lumbees meet for the first time: “Who’s your people?” In case of possible physical attraction, it ensures that the two of you are not in fact related. 

He didn’t answer my question, but said, “I’m from Chapel,” meaning the Union Chapel community. Chapel is one of the oldest, most established settlements within Lumbeeland. Lumbee knowledge tells us that Chapel has contained a dense network of families long settled there, and if you’re from Chapel then about eighty percent of your family is also from Chapel. 

I had no close relatives from there. He could pour me another shot.

Despite the fact that Grayson was clearly a talker—which was good because I was a listener—he hadn’t really answered my question. Who was his family? I’m a historian; I need details and context. If he was from Chapel, I figured, his family tree had been planted long, long ago, like mine. So I persisted, mildly.

Again, instead of answering, he said, “Here, feel my hair. See—it’s real good hair, the best.”

I laughed. No one had ever asked me to touch their hair, so I thought he must be awfully vain. But he was serious; he took off his baseball cap and bent down so I could feel for myself who his people were. His hair was shorter, smooth, a little bit wavy. 

I didn’t reciprocate the invitation. My hair isn’t mysterious; it’s just super curly and borders on uncontrollable. If you touch it too much it gets messed up. The last time a stranger asked to touch my hair I was in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the man’s tone was pushy and persuasive, as if I should allow it simply because he expressed enough interest in me to ask. He was surprised when I told him no. But Grayson’s gesture was a polite invitation, and he didn’t try to impose himself on my hair. He knew better.

Lumbee hair can be straight and coarse, straight and smooth, wavy and smooth, wavy and coarse, frizzy and fine, thick and curly. Its texture is one of the ways we recognize one another; color varies so much it rarely receives a mention. Grayson’s hair offered no special clue about who his family was, but the way he asked, and what he said about it, offered another marker that he belonged to the Lumbee community. Little did I know that this was the beginning of Grayson stringing me along, detail by detail. 

Through stories about his childhood I learned that Grayson became Lumbee. He was born, it turned out, in Charleston. His parents both came from old South Carolina families who identified as white. But his stepmother was Lumbee, and he was raised in Union Chapel. Everything about him—the way he talked, how he carried himself, his family stories—led me to conclude that his Lumbeeness was as old as our practice of making strangers into kin. Which is to say, he’s as Lumbee as any of us are. 

We were both at a crossroads when we met, and my grief had not yet shown me a way to begin anew. He also needed space. He had lost a daughter, and I had lost a husband. Our dearest loved ones were in the heavens; our hearts and minds were largely with them. Lydia kept me tethered to earth; he was looking for a tie. This connection drew us into each other’s orbit, gravity keeping us together but also a little apart. No one we knew could imagine what in the world we had in common, but I think he and I knew that we shared things that were not of this world, but of space, of the stars and planets.

 

FALL, 2013

Even as I came to understand our shared need for space, I wanted to know more about the concrete things we might share—the places, the land, the ground. On dates, we sat on each other’s porches, imbibed bourbon, smoked cigarettes, and talked, sometimes about my classes in American Indian history or my research on Lumbees. Being a rock star in his own right, he seemed to respect my work. I respected his, and I felt comfortable talking to him about the messy, imperfect, or illicit things I knew about in our history. He didn’t mind that I was a career girl, absorbed in the details. 

One night I told him about trying to teach my students the diplomatic challenges of the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century deerskin trade in the Southeast. Trade partners secured their bonds through kinship, and political alliances followed. The trade machine was greased with alcohol and guns, and produced slaves as well as skins. Trade depended on acts of mutual exchange; betrayal of reciprocal relationships not only broke the trade but broke the political alliances that went with it, resulting in violence, relocation, death, and forgetting. After the deerskin trade ended and the slave trade became focused on the importation and sale of Africa’s indigenous people, the political power of the southern U.S.’s indigenous nations declined. 

But Indian people themselves worked hard to compensate by making and acquiring goods and skills to barter and sell. In Lumbeeland, especially in Union Chapel, Indians depended on an “informal economy,” a polite term for the black market shaped by the deerskin trade. While the skins and slaves were less of a factor, the guns and alcohol remained. Liquor, in fact, became the most profitable product, especially after the state of North Carolina passed laws to give the liquor trade exclusively to whites. Our economy didn’t start out as illegal, but it became so. It’s not something to be proud of, but it’s the truth. 

Most of my students only barely understood that Indians were more than Disney-generated noble savages, and their secondary-school history had taught them that history was distinctly neat and tidy, so they were largely unaccustomed to imperfect historical figures and systemic messiness. They grew up with the optimistic, spotless phrase “knowledge is power.” They thought that the more they learned, the more power they had. I had trouble distilling it for them, but Grayson knew exactly what to say. 

“Knowledge isn’t power,” he said. “Knowledge is trade. Trade is power.” In other words, the successful deployment of all the elements of trade—trust, reciprocity, violence, indulgence, acquisition of wealth—makes you powerful. Through experience you gain the knowledge to make these decisions, but knowledge by itself does not produce power. 

I went back to lecture the next week with these words ringing in my ears. I used them to explain why the deerskin trade was so important and why my students needed more than knowledge to achieve their goals. They needed to know what makes a system work, and then how to test that knowledge and use it effectively.

 

SPRING, 2014

Dating Grayson included riding around at night. He loved to drive, so we’d get in the car and cruise, just not in the exact Lumbee sense of the word. Lumbees cruise through “downtown” Pembroke to see and be seen. But he and I cruised back roads, places we could stay invisible. Our soundtrack was the same kind of mix we were—some spontaneous combination of Dirty South hip-hop, mainstream party songs, country, and rock, in no particular order: T.I., Plies, Hank Williams Jr., Led Zeppelin, Kid Rock, Luke Bryan. It was always diverse and loud. Moving through darkness was our only objective.

One night we were talking about history again, and he remarked that Pembroke was part of Union Chapel, not the other way around. 

“What?” I said. “Union Chapel is outside of Pembroke.”

“Nope,” he replied. “If you ask the old heads around the house, Union Chapel ain’t in Pembroke. Pembroke’s in Union Chapel.” 

The career girl in me started humming; instantly he reminded me of an older understanding of place, one that I thought about all the time but didn’t realize he could relate to. Naively, perhaps, I assign Pembroke more importance than it really has, because for a hundred years Indians and non-Indians had converged there to do business and trade. The town was a headquarters of a certain form of power, the most visible form, but not the only kind of power. Locations that outsiders think are important have dominated our understanding of Southern and Native places for too long. Grayson could show me how our ancestors built our community without reference to what mattered to outsiders. He was both insider and outsider, like I was, and I wanted to know more about how he saw Lumbee places.

So I asked him to show me where the borders of Union Chapel lay. We left Pembroke and he first drove me up through the heart of Union Chapel, to the intersection of knowledge and trade. Driving was a chance to hear stories, and stories are the lifeblood of my profession. He told me about the hostility that outsiders had experienced there, how before cars allowed you to travel fast, people were beaten for traveling through if they didn’t belong. That quick aggression protected those who practiced the informal economy, and the trade could thrive. 

Two Lumbee churches and a Lumbee school sit at that crossroads. Our people studied and worshipped there long before constructing buildings to hold those gatherings. Lumbees can stand there and know for certain that their ancestors lived and died there. We don’t need a building to know where our history happened or why it’s important. 

We turned left and drove to roughly Union Chapel’s western edge, a remote road past a community called Buie. After we crossed that road, Grayson told me, we were basically in the territory of Red Springs (a town in Robeson County formerly dominated by whites and blacks, though of course now Lumbees live there too). When we weren’t whizzing through intersections, I was trying to read road signs, thinking that their letters, dimly lit by our headlights, would give me some kind of orientation on this ground, relative to other places I knew. The signs were not helpful; this was ground you had to feel to know. I don’t think I could find it again.

Circling back to the north, we traveled east on a familiar two-lane highway for a while, before turning back south way after we passed Union Chapel Road, which travels all the way back through the intersection of knowledge and trade to the town of Pembroke. Eventually we got to a store called Jamestown, which I knew already was the gateway to Saddletree, another very old Lumbee community. “Everything from Red Springs to Saddletree and back to Pembroke was Union Chapel, back in the day,” Grayson told me. We turned back south and wound up on a road I knew well—Chicken Road. I have family that live on that road, and knowing where I could locate the border between Union Chapel and Saddletree was useful. If I found a historic reference to Chicken Road, or someone who lived on the north end of it, I could then at least ask a better question—were they a Union Chapel family or a Saddletree family? The difference was important if you were going to get the story right. The drive confirmed for me how Pembroke was on the outskirts of Chapel, not the other way around.

Our midnight cruise also showed me that Union Chapel, not Pembroke, was the main intersection of knowledge and trade, while the community’s power was everywhere and invisible, and included Pembroke. Well before outsiders arrived to make their own uses out of Lumbees and our homelands, we already created our networks and understood how to generate power perfectly well. Grayson showed me how Lumbee geography undoes the categories that outsiders impose upon us. 

I didn’t know that night how the career-girl-meets-rock-star love story might turn out. Despite our instant attraction, Grayson and I orbited one another cautiously, and the gravitational force that held us together was more fragile than either of us realized. So instead of a straight line to a happily-ever-after horizon, my attachment to him continued as his changed. Again I learned that love could continue despite separation, that separation was not death. Our shared places and teachings eventually drew us back into each other’s orbit, and the layers of our places and identities allowed us to begin again. 


Enjoy this story? Subscribe to the Oxford American.

 

Malinda Maynor Lowery is a member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina and author of The Lumbee Indians: An American Struggle. She is a professor of history and director of the Center for the Study of the American South at UNC Chapel Hill.

More from Malinda Maynor Lowery