“Our-story”: The heritage of the Occaneechi Indian Tribe

Less than 20 weathered cedar poles stand at the site of what was once a full Occaneechi Village Replica, located behind the Courthouse downtown.

At the Dec. 17 Occaneechi Replica Village Dedication Ceremony, John “Blackfeather” Jeffries, once, and still referred to as, the Tribal Chief, stood with tribal administrator and cousin, Vicki Jeffries, and other tribal members, with a circle of over 100 community members standing around them and a fire, celebrating the reconstruction of the replica site, which will be completed in early 2017. 

The construction for the original replica – a full-fledged village with handmade huts and a wall of cedar poles, a palisade – began with the setting of the first pole in September 1997.

The replica modeled a site with a 379 foot palisade enclosing 0.25 acres, with an average of 15 poles per square foot, with three gates on the south, east, and west facing sides. The enclosure held about 10 huts, an estimate from archeological findings. Outside of the enclosure, graves were found, more hints to the Occaneechi ancestors who once inhabited the village. 

Jeffries was one of the driving forces behind the construction that began in 1997, saying, “I touched every one of those poles,” even with bum knees and hips, things that were also reconstructed.

The last pole was set three months later on Dec., 24 1997. In March of 1998, they began the inside work building the huts, with community members and volunteers from far and wide. They completed the construction in 1999, and Jeffries’ brother had his wedding ceremony at the site on March 24, 1999.

This replica village was not only a visual replica, but a living village, one that often held pow wows, evenings and mornings around the fire, hunting and fishing adventures, arrow and bow making, life with their families, and far more.

“As a young boy, these are the things I had to learn as I grew older in the world,” he said. Everything from fishing and hunting, exploring backwoods and running through fields, learning valuable lessons from being immersed in the land, much of which was a custom of his people. “When I was a boy we used to fish this river up and down.”

One day, Jeffries and his grandson, whom he refers to as “Little Bear,” were hunting, wearing animal hides and regalia. The image he depicted was of Little Bear and him walking side by side back to the village, with Little Bear holding a duck by his side and him holding a turkey in each hand. 

Though many people helped build the site, upkeep was difficult, as Jeffries was one of the only people who kept up and cleaned the replica village.

In 2003, as the poles began to get severely weathered and the huts grew worn, the poles were taken down and moved to Occaneechi tribal grounds in Mebane, but the huts were unable to be salvaged.  

Read this story at the News of Orange website

Occaneechi Indian Tribe history

The Occaneechi Indian Tribe migrated from the Ohio River Valley, across the Blue Ridge Mountains, and settled in what is now Clarksville, Virginia at an unknown date, according to Jeffries. 

In 1676 Bacon’s Rebellion took place in Virginia, which included the raiding and killing of Occaneechi Indians, forcing many to move back to the Ohio River Valley and other places, with Jeffries’ ancestors moving down south to what is now known as Hillsborough. They lived there and first made contact with European settlers when John Lawson, an English explorer, came in 1701.

Living along the Eno and Haw Rivers, the land was rich for hunting and fishing, as they had vast land to hunt buffalo, deer, bears, rabbits, turkeys and more. The tribe knew the land, living in the area for thousands of years prior to European contact. 

As word spread that there was a village on the spot where the Great Indian Trading path crossed the Eno River, Europeans began coming in and Jeffries ancestors started moving back towards Virginia, trying to receive protection from the Virginia government in 1712. 

Eventually, in the late 1770s, the tribe left Virginia and returned, settling in Alamance County in a place Jeffries referred to as “Little Texas.”

Over 400 years later: living as a first American in today’s world

Hillsborough boasts buildings with historical documents and artifacts that date back to before the town was founded in 1754 – but Jefferies, though with fond admiration for the town and its leaders, feels that his tribe has been forgotten, but is thankful and excited to see the reconstruction of their village.

As time has gone on, through the Occaneechi Homeland Preservation Project, the tribe has been able to regain portions of their ancestral lands, 25 acres, in “Little Texas,” which now holds a ceremonial ground, trails, administrative space, and a tribal museum.

They are able to preserve their heritage through their museum on the land, Jeffries said, and also at a museum in Clarksville, Virginia, where Jeffries’ regalia is displayed in a glass case.

Jeffries has his traditional regalia, but on many days can be seen sporting a ballcap bearing the words “Native American Marine.”

When asked about why he serves a country that has, historically, not fought for his heritage, he responded, “It’s my country, my people found this country, we fought custody, we fought everybody.

“This is my country, this is not America to me, it’s Turtle Island,” he continued. “That’s what our people called it. When people ask me if I’m a Native American, I say, ‘No, I’m a First American because I’m a [descendant of the] first people.’”

Jeffries was a fleet marine in the Dominican Republic during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

He married his wife Lynette Jeffries in 1964, and he said she has had a hand in all of the research and work he has done, especially in obtaining State recognition. 

It took the North Carolina Occaneechi Tribe nearly 20 years, from 1984 to 2002, to be formally recognized by the state – making them North Carolina’s eighth official Indian tribe – they had to meet five of eight criteria, and the eventual way they received identification was from a child’s marked grave from the tribe over 200 years ago. 

When Jeffries received the document, he said he just stared at it, and when his grandfather had a look at it, his eyes welled up. They had been natives of the place for centuries, but it was finally an official document. 

The smallest tribe in the southeast, with about 1,300 people total throughout the United States, the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Tribe now had official recognition. “This is my story, this is my life, this is what I do for my people,” he said.

Reconstructed Replica in 2017

The reconstructed replica is expected to be finished in 2017, serving as a “landmark in education,” and celebrating the Occaneechi culture, and the generations of Occaneechi descendants ahead, Jeffries said. 

Jeffries spoke of his tribe, saying, “it’s not ‘his-story,’ but ‘our-story,’” he continued. “It’s our story of our people – so many people seem disinterested in the native culture, as I see it – but [the reconstruction] validates the land of the Occaneechi before European contact.”