The Occaneechi Tribe: staking claim to their culture and land once again

This article was originally published in print in Forty Eight-Five Magazine:

On a brisk day in January, as the sun shines through the window and highlights the steam rising off his hot cup of coffee, John “Blackfeather”Jeffries says I might need to bring some camping gear– his story is one I’ll need some time for.

Walking along the cases of artifacts held in the small museum located on the Occaneechi Tribal Grounds in “Little Texas” in Alamance County, he tells of the meticulous craftsmanship and thoughtfulness gone into each bow, arrow, knife, pipe – you name it.

Jeffries, once, and still referred to as, the tribal Chief, holds these tools– all made with natural objects like bone, leather, copper, and stone – with compassion, reflecting his character.

 Jeffries dons a ball cap bearing the words “Native American Marine” as silver curls peek out of a bun tucked in the back.

He was a fleet marine in the Dominican Republic and the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1960s, and when asked why he serves a country that has not, historically, fought for his heritage, he responds, “It’s my country, my people found this country, we fought custody – we fought everybody.”

 

To him, this country is his, but it isn’t America, it’s “Turtle Island” – what the First Americans – not Native Americans, he clarified – called it.

 Jefferies was encouraged by his wife Lynette to look into the heritage of their people – a rabbit hole Jeffries would never escape.

As his passion grew for preserving the heritage of the Occaneechi people, through hard work and strenuous labor, a replica village resembling the original village, full-fledged with handmade huts and a wall of cedar poles, a palisade, was constructed in Hillsborough.

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 the tribe dressed in full regalia during pow wows, Jeffries, the steam from his coffee fading, reminisces on Lynette wearing a butterfly hairpiece with ribbons that floated down past her hips. Pinned on the ribbons were butterflies that people had given her, and as she danced, the butterflies seemed to dance in the air, exemplifying why the native people called butterflies the “flowers of the wind.”

“She was immaculately dressed,” he said. “She was the love of my life, and still is,” as Lynette, with age, was diagnosed with dementia and is now is in a rest home.

Less than 20 weathered cedar poles stand at the site now, as the village became forgotten, Jeffries said, as he was the only one in town to upkeep the village and over time, the village deteriorated.

The palisade was removed, the huts destroyed, and they retreated back to their land, until recently, in December 2016, when a dedication ceremony was held to head off the reconstruction of the village, to be completed in 2017.

 They obtained their tribal grounds only recently in 2004, after they embarked on a project in August 2002 to begin buying back a portion of their ancestral lands in northeast Alamance County, 25 acres of rolling farmland – land that the Occaneechi now own together as a tribe once again after over 250 years.

The project, called the Occaneechi Homeland Preservation Project, was mostly completed in 2005 with ceremonial grounds and a tribal museum.

Turtle Island is a good, romanticized, description of both Jefferies and his ancestors, and even his grandchildrens’ youth, 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.

He knew these lands, and learned to value them in a special way from a young age – but so did his ancestors – ancestors that were forcibly displaced by European invasion in 1701.

The first people, which included the Occaneechi Indian Tribe, date back to arrival on this continent in the 12-1300s. They settled in the Ohio River Valley and eventually migrated to the Blue Ridge Mountains and settled in what is now Clarksville, Virginia.

 In 1676 Bacon’s Rebellion took place, raiding and killing many Occaneechi Indians, and forcing many to move back to the Ohio River Valley and other places, with Jeffries’ ancestors moving south to Hillsborough, where they were living when they first made contact with John Lawson, an English explorer, 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 far more.

As word spread that there was a village on the spot where the Great Indian Trading path crossed the Eno River, Europeans came, pushing Jeffries ancestors back towards Virginia, as they began 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 “Little Texas.”

 Receiving representation for their tribe –the smallest tribe in the southeast, with about 1,300 people total throughout the United States– was a long fought battle that took the North Carolina Occaneechi Tribe almost 20 years, from 1984 to 2002, to be formally recognized by the state – making them North Carolina’s eighth official Indian tribe.

In order to prove their dated heritage and origin in this area, they had to meet 5 of the 8 criteria, with the final piece being identification was from a child’s marked grave from the tribe over 200 years ago.

Jeffries’ father looked over the document, and sitting in his wheelchair, with still perfect eyesight, he read the letter, placed in on the table, and looked up at John.

He got glassy-eyed and went through the lineage of the tribe – his family – dating back centuries in this area.

“All of this time out on this land – living here, farming it, working in Hillsborough – it took a white woman to tell me I could be an Indian,” Jeffries father said.

 They had been natives of Hillsborough for centuries, but it was finally an official document.

“This is my story, this is my life, this is what I do for my people,” he said.