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We are our Saviors: A Message to Rising Lumbee Leadership

Yesterday, in Pembroke, NC, a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest highlighted the great racial divide in Robeson County. The march was organized by UNC Pembroke students, and supported by university faculty members. A group of Lumbees met the protesters with rifles. Protesters reported that these counter-protesters were throwing things at them and yelling obscenities throughout the protest.

As a Black and Lumbee woman, I'm disappointed in some of my Lumbee people. I'm disheartened by the need to compete for handouts from the oppressor. In my body, I feel exhausted. My bones ache, my lip quivers, and tears run down my cheeks; but I cry not just because of the events that transpired yesterday. I mourn every day that my people become more distant from their identity as Indigenous people. I weep at the extent of the damage the colonizers unleashed on our minds, and at how much effort it will take to set the facts straight.

As I read through the posts of other disappointed Lumbees and Robeson County residents, I get more unsettled. Several people talked about leaving our home and starting lives elsewhere. Black students question whether or not they will continue to attend school at UNCP. Most of us, who have left the county, don't want to come back home. It's a love/hate relationship. Outside of political and interracial context, we come together at homecoming, and eat grape ice cream and collard sandwiches. We look forward to celebrating our traditions, and bask in the ancestral bond our bodies have with the land and the Dark Water.

Everything feels good, but then the peace becomes uncomfortable. We know that tension is looming, and it's only a matter of time before something pops off. The good times seem to never last that long. It's like when you're at the family function, and that one injustice gets swept under the rug: everybody knows about it, but no one wants to address it. You want to say something, but you don't want to disrupt the illusion of a healthy family dynamic.

We are in a toxic relationship with our community.

Beneath the internalized oppression and racism, we have much bigger problems like police brutality, missing women and children, unsolved murders, drug-related violence, and political corruption. A lot of us are numb to news stories about new dead bodies dropping. Every missing girl becomes just another poster. Our sacred river and our ancestral land is being threatened by the Atlantic Coast Pipeline; the pipeline that some of our leadership allowed to pass through for only a million dollars. The same system that oppresses the Black members of our community also oppresses Native American people.

The Black Lives Matter movement benefits all of us, and has started conversations about the eradication of racism and oppression against Natives and other marginalized communities too. We've been trying to get the Washington football team to change their name for decades, and now it's part of a national conversation for racial justice. Symbols of racism and odes to colonialism are being torn down across the world. People are highlighting the injustices against us, the original people.

Some Lumbee people have completely lost touch with what it means to be Indigenous. We have forgotten the struggles of our ancestors, and somehow think that if we believe like the white man, then we will be treated like the white man. The harsh reality is that we were pushed into the swamps of Robeson County by colonizers. Our ancestors navigated the Dark Water, found protection in her, and we survived. Our liberation was tied to the liberation of other Native peoples and Black people. Our ancestors were forced to assimilate in order to survive. For safety, our great-grandparents and grandparents hid their Native identity to avoid removal and mistreatment. We became the Lumbee to be inclusive of our collective identity as an amalgamation of Indigenous peoples. This swamp has been a safe haven to all of those persecuted by colonization, and we've allowed some people to turn it into a brown Aryan Nation.

Instead of acceptance, some of us have adopted the divisive rhetoric of our oppressors. We've been fighting for full federal recognition for decades, and other Natives in different tribes deny us access to the resources that we are entitled to as Indigenous people. Yet, some of us turn around and tell mixed Lumbees (mainly Black Lumbees) that we are not real members of the tribe. We've all been called fake Indians, and have been discriminated against in more ways than one. However, mistreating Black people and your own flesh and blood will not correct society's transgressions against us. Being a "good Indian" to our oppressors, is not going to rally other people of color to join our causes.

Young leaders face an existential crisis. We talk about solutions, spread love through speeches, but some people still won't listen. It's emotionally exhausting to talk to your own people about their racism and bigotry, all rooted in ignorance. With white people it's easy, because their hate is, in a sense, easier to justify. When it's your own people, it's much harder to rationalize. You see the souls of your own as seduced by false promises by the oppressor, and you know that the hate comes from miseducation and historical trauma. As rising leaders we have so many thoughts that go through our heads, and pain and frustration in our hearts.

What can I do to get through to you?

I come at you with hate, and do nothing but fuel your ignorance.

I come at you with respect and facts, and you reject that.

I come at you with peace and love, and you are dismissive.

So what can I do? Do I let the powers that be get the best of you? Do I wait and watch the system devour you? Are you so hell bent on being right that you cannot see that you're being used in a grand scheme to maintain white supremacy?

To our rising leaders: Don't give up. The night is dark, but coming up to the horizon is the sun. We are the light. We are the answer to our ancestors' prayers. We have the ability to become the change we want to see. As we regroup and heal from the pain we feel, please take a moment to think about the future that we can create together.

We are not alone. Connect with like minded people, even if they are not your own. Let's start creating the Robeson County we want to see. Vote in leaders that hold these interests. Invest in future generations. Demand funding to indigenize and revive our education system. Maintain love, and cast out hate.

I refuse to let the racist actions of a few ignorant Lumbees define me as a Lumbee woman, and to define Lumbee culture. Let's set the record straight. Healing starts at home, and most of us want to make the land around the Dark Water the safe haven that it was for our ancestors, during times of racial persecution.

Robeson County, along with the rest of the world, is going through a great awakening. Our generation is dismantling of all systems of oppression. No one is coming to save us. We are our own saviors. Embody that. Believe that.

The Lumbee River, also known as Black Water or Dark Water. Lumbees are called "people of the Dark Water."

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