Featured photo: Amanda Jacobs Ballard with her son Elijah Sheek and friend Jay Revels at the Onslow County Veteran’s Pow Wow. (photo by Shawna Houle)
When Amanda Jacobs Ballard went to Southern Guilford High School in the late ’80s, the school mascot was the Indian. The student newspaper was called the Totem Pole and the yearbook was the Drumbeat.
“I graduated in 1989, and two years later, they had someone dressed up as an Indian running across the football field,” Ballard recalls. “That didn’t sit well with me.”
As this year’s Thanksgiving holiday rolls around, local Native Americans like Ballard are sharing their relationship to the holiday and how they choose to celebrate it.
According to the 2020 Census, more than 130,000 Native Americans live in North Carolina, making the state the seventh largest Native American population in the country.
Ballard was born and raised in Greensboro. She’s part of the Lumbee Tribe, one of eight tribes that call North Carolina home, according to UNC’s American Indian Center. Originally known as the Cheraw community, members of the tribe originate from Robeson County in the southeastern part of the state near Fayetteville. They’re the largest tribe east of the Mississippi River and the ninth largest in the United States. They’re also the largest non-reservation tribe in the country.
As a child growing up in Guilford County, Ballard says that she was very aware that she was one of the only Native American kids in her classroom. That meant when November and the Thanksgiving holiday rolled around, she was often singled out and bullied by classmates.
“The kids would be like, ‘Are you going to dress up as an Indian?’ and I would be like, ‘Why would I dress up? I already am Indian,’” Ballard says.
Perry Hunt Jr. was born and raised in Greensboro and is also part of the Lumbee Tribe.
He too, remembers having to make pilgrim hats and headdresses out of construction paper in schools when the holiday rolled around. He didn’t necessarily fight it but says he knew that it was wrong.
“Kids would make jokes about it and they would do the whooping with their mouth and hand and stuff like that,” he says. “I didn’t like it but everybody was doing it so you questioned yourself or you found yourself going along with it.”
Both Hunt and Ballard are members of the Guilford Native American Association, an organization that aims to teach the community about indigenous culture. Hunt, who sits on the Pow Wow committee of the association, says that it played an important role in helping him connect with this identity as a child.
“They were a pretty awesome support system growing up,” Hunt says. “They did summer programs and took us to parks and zoos. It was a chance to bring us all together and do things together.”
Jennifer Revels Baxter is a board member of the Guilford Native American Association and the chair of the Pow Wow committee. She’s also a member of the Lumbee tribe and says for her, being vocal about her community started when she was young.
“I have worked as an advocate for indigenous people, partly through the arts and politically,” Baxter says. “I’ve been addressing social issues all my life.”
Baxter, who was born in Charlotte but grew up in Greensboro, says her parents were part of the group that started the Guilford County Native American Association back in 1975. She watched her parents advocate for indigenous rights and she continues to do the same by teaching the truth about the first Thanksgiving, she says.
According to several news outlets, much of what school children have been taught for generations about Thanksgiving is either false or only half the story. There is no concrete evidence that the Wampanoag were invited to the meal and even afterwards, peace between the pilgrims and the tribe didn’t last long. The Europeans brought with them diseases that wiped out swaths of the Wampanoags and the exploitation of resources on Wampanoag land led to the first war between the native people and the pilgrims — King Phillip’s War. During those events, the chief of the Wampanoags at the time Metacomet, otherwise known as King Phillip, was caught, beheaded and dismembered. Because of the brutal history of the day, some Native Americans choose not to celebrate Thanksgiving and have renamed it as the Day of Mourning.
“None of our textbooks told the truth,” says Baxter. “Our history as our children know it hasn’t been traditionally written by indigenous people, our story hasn’t been shared in the mainstream. We have an obligation and a responsibility to teach the truth about this country to our children. If no one is taught as children about the real Thanksgiving and that actual event, if we are not teaching actual facts, to our children, then we all to grow up believing whatever we have been taught.”
That’s why during Thanksgiving, Baxter says she still gathers with her family for a meal, but makes sure to teach the true history of the holiday to her children and grandchildren.
Hunt says he celebrates the holiday with his family by cooking a feast and having everyone over. But he’s clear to say that he doesn’t think about it in the same way that many Americans might.
“We don’t celebrate it in the sense of the traditional American way of celebrating it,” he says. “We don’t do anything like that. It’s more of a family gathering.”
For Ballard, it’s a time to be thankful for her ancestors. She lights sage in the morning and thinks about the history of her people.
“Knowing how harsh that Thanksgiving was, when I get together with my family, I am thankful,” she says. “Thanksgiving to me is just about being thankful. It’s about ‘look how far we have come.’”
All three of them noted that this Thanksgiving, they want people to learn more about them and their history. They want them to break free from the false narrative of the holiday and shouldn’t feel confined to celebrating their culture just in November for Native American Indian Heritage Month.
“I just think it’s kind of a slap in the face because we are this country,” Hunt says. “Why is it just a month?…. We’re not just a piece of your American history, we are the history of this country.”
Ballard echoes his sentiment.
“It feels derogatory,” she says. “Every month is a month to celebrate. As some people say, ‘Today’s a good day to be Indian.’ We’re proud of who we are. We’re still here; we’re not going anywhere.”
To learn more about the Guilford Native American Association, visit guilfordnative.com.