From the Archives: Black, white, and other: The struggle for identity

Black and white photo of wall with bumper stickers

Photo courtesy of Forest Hazel, Southern Exposure.

In 1985, Southern Exposure devoted an issue to Indians in the South called “We Are Here Forever.” The 108-page issue told the histories and perspectives of Indigenous folks across the region. Through poems, short stories, and articles, “We Are Here Forever” shed light on issues from Native sovereignty and racial identity to cultural heritage and traditions. The issue would be useful even today, in spite of being a few decades out of date.

I was proud to have my article, “Black, White, and Other: The Struggle for Identity,” accepted for publication, as it was the first piece I ever wrote that was published. The focus of the article was that the South was historically a biracial society, and any individual or community that did not fit neatly into either the Black or white racial category was often left with, as we would say, “A pretty hard row to hoe.”  Racial identity impacted where you could live, where you went to school, where you could work, military service assignments, and even where you sat in the movie theater.  

As I re-read the piece, I thought about all that has transpired in the 38 years that have passed and how much has changed for North Carolina’s Indian people. At the same time, a lot, unfortunately, has remained the same. 

Indian people still face many of the same issues as they did in 1985: a lack of resources, lack of knowledge on the part of many North Carolina residents about the state’s Native communities, and the continued existence of a sort of benign neglect on the part of many governmental and local entities that still relegate the story of Indigenous peoples to the distant past. It is, for example, a shame that the flagship institution of the state’s public university system, UNC-Chapel Hill, teaches not a single class focused solely on North Carolina’s American Indian tribes. It is also sad that government entities continue to chronically undercount Indian people and obscure their identities in demographic data collection — an issue that poses serious consequences to health research, federal and state funding, and political representation. There is still a long way to go in some regards.

On the bright side, since 1985, we have seen a number of positive developments in other areas. These include, in no particular order: the creation of American Indian Heritage Month in North Carolina and on the federal level, celebrated annually in November; the official recognition by North Carolina of two additional Indian tribes, the Meherrin Indian Tribe (1986) and the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation (2002); the naming of the first two American Indians to serve in their respective roles in state government (David McCoy as Secretary of the Treasury and Pam Cashwell as Secretary of Administration); the creation in 2021 of the North Carolina American Indian Heritage Commission, supplementing the work of the North Carolina Commission of Indian Affairs; and a multitude of smaller, but still significant markers of the progress that has been made.

In short, there have been crucial strides made in recognizing the role and histories of Indian people in North Carolina, but this is not the time to rest. There is still ignorance, but it ill behooves us to complain about ignorance if we are unwilling to take or make opportunities to teach the truth. Not only to the general population of North Carolina, but in our own communities and homes. I hope in some small way, this little essay will continue to do that now and in the future, as I hope it has over the past 38 years.

— Forest Hazel


In 1978, an Indian in Orange County, North Carolina, registered to vote. The registrar, a white woman, took her name, address, political affiliation, and date of birth, and then filled in the section marked race with a “W.” The woman told the registrar she was not white, whereupon the registrar demanded some identification papers. The woman then showed her North Carolina driver’s license, which identified her as an Indian. The registrar let her change the form, crossing out the “W” and writing in “I,” but remarked that Indians are white, anyway. When the woman later went to vote, she found that she was once again listed as white on the voter list; the registrar had obviously changed the form in her absence. A complaint to the board of elections secured a change of classification from “white” to “other.” To date Orange County has declined to allow Indians to be listed as such.

Sometime between today and that day in the sixteenth century when English settlers first set foot on North Carolina soil, North Carolina’s Indian people have curiously moved into not being considered as Indians. They are just now, 400 years later, reaching a point where they may be secure in their Indian identities again, and they are carving out a niche for themselves in Southern society.

The struggle of North Carolina’s 65,000-plus Native Americans to preserve and reaffirm their cultural uniqueness is common to Indian people across the South. Whether you look at the Pamunkey and the Chickahominy of Virginia, the Nanticoke of Delaware, the Houma and Chitimacha of Louisiana, or the Eno-Occaneechi of North Carolina, the story is essentially the same. The Indians of the South, particularly the Indians not living on reservations — the majority of the Indian population — have lived for generations as a third race in a biracial society, neither fish nor fowl, existing in the gray area between black and white.

North Carolina, according to the 1980 census, has more Indian people than any other state east of the Mississippi and is among the top five states in the nation in Indian population. The best-known of the Indian tribes found in North Carolina today are the Eastern Band of Cherokees living high in the Great Smoky Mountains. Of the state’s Indian peoples, only the Cherokee have both a federally administered reservation and federal recognition as a tribe. As such, they come under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington — a prerequisite to eligibility for various federal programs and aid. Other tribes in North Carolina are recognized by the state or are in the process of petitioning for such recognition.

To further complicate an already complex issue, the Lumbee Indians, located mostly in the southeastern part of the state, received limited federal recognition in 1956 under an act saying that the Lumbee are indeed Indians but that “nothing in this act shall make such Indians eligible for any service performed by the United States for Indians because of their status as Indians…” The Lumbee are currently working to achieve full federal recognition; a tribal roll has been made up, forcing the Lumbee for the first time to define who is and is not a Lumbee Indian.

The following are the only other recognized tribes in North Carolina and the years in which they received recognition: the Cherokee-Powhatans of Person County (1920), the Haliwa-Saponi of Halifax and Warren counties (1965), the Coharie Indians of Sampson and Harnett counties (1971) and the Waccamaw-Siouan of Columbus County (1971). Four other Indian groups are in the process of organizing and petitioning for state recognition: the Meherrin Indians of Hertford County, the Eno-Occaneechi of Alamance and Orange counties, the Tuscarora of Robeson County, and the Hoke County Cherokees.

How did Indians in the South lose their Indian identity? Why was it that their neighbors ceased to consider Indian peoples to be Indian and began to refer to them as “yellow people,” “Cubans,” “issues,” and more officially “free persons of color,” which after Emancipation became simply “colored”?

When European settlers arrived in the South, they found dozens of tribes of Indians, each with its own language and customs. There were the Algonquin-speakers along the coast, tribes like the Hatteras and the Machapunga. Further inland were the Iroquoian-speaking tribes, the Tuscarora and their cousins to the west, the Cherokee. Scattered through the Piedmont were the tribes of the Siouan language: the Eno, the Saponi, and the Catawba. The settlers, for the most part, made no fine distinctions between tribes. Indians were considered useful at first, as instructors on how to survive in the New World or as suppliers of fur, meat, and later, slaves. After the colonists became firmly established, the Indian people ceased to be useful and became obstacles to be removed in the easiest way available.

Warfare decimated some tribes, like the Tuscarora, who after the end of the Tuscarora War in 1715 left their old lands in northeastern North Carolina, many of them traveling north to join their relatives in what is now New York. Some, like the Cherokee in 1838, were forcibly removed from the state to locations out West, where, it was believed, no whites would ever want to settle. East of the mountains, colonial records ceased to mention Indians as such by around 1760, giving an impression that they had simply vanished from the land. In reality many North Carolina Indian people remained in their traditional homelands. They withdrew into remote, isolated areas away from the white communities, often protected from outside interference by swamps, hills, or other natural obstacles. The very nature of the land tended to discourage white settlement; the land was often of such poor quality that the settlers could find better elsewhere — at least at first. In time, the Indians were forgotten by their neighbors and had little contact with anyone outside their own communities.

Many of these communities were formed by several small tribes joining together for mutual protection. English had already become the common trade language and eventually other languages ceased to be used. This led, after one or two generations, to the extinction of the native languages. Even the names of the original tribes often disappeared and must today be surmised from the original locations of the various tribes.

With the language went many parts of the culture itself — the songs, stories, history. This breakdown of the language, the confusion and stress of the rapid changes taking place in their society, and the massive dislocations of the 1700s weakened the remaining native religions that had not already been replaced by Christianity. In short, by the time official notice was taken of these communities again, beginning consistently in the early 1800s, the Indian people were living in essentially a Western manner. Their dress, dwellings, language, and religion were basically English. The Indian customs and traditions that remained were those essential to survival: techniques of hunting and fishing, herbal medicines, basketry, and the extensive use of wild foods not usually eaten by whites.

The distinction between Indian and non-Indian was further obscured by occasional matings and marriages between Indians and others, both black and white. These isolated communities at times provided refuge or permanent homes for runaway slaves, as well as for free blacks, white criminals, and other whites dissatisfied with mainstream society. These mixtures left their marks upon future generations, giving the tribes today a wide variety of physical features. Even within the same family, skin color, hair texture, and eye color may vary far more than is usual.

When whites began moving into the areas near these communities, they found people who were more or less brown-skinned, speaking English, and living in a European manner. In the eyes of the whites, now 50 to 100 years past the eighteenth-century Indian wars in North Carolina, these people were not Indians. In some cases, the whites devised new categories for the Indians to give some explanation for their brown skins other than Indian ancestry. Terms like Moors, Turks, or Cubans were used in various places to describe specific groups of people who were perceived as being neither white nor black. But rarely Indian.

The assumption was made at times that these people were simply white/black mixtures. Terms such as “Cane River mulattos,” “issues,” and “yellow people” emphasize the idea of people being solely of black and white descent. Finally, some groups were identified by their community name, such as the “Buckheaders” of Columbus County; or by the last name of the more common ancestors, the Goinses, for example. In a few instances, the people retained their tribal names down through the years. This was the case with the Nanticoke of Delaware and the Pamunkey and Mattaponi of Virginia, among others.

When the members of these groups are mentioned in early official records such as court documents or census tables, they are frequently referred to as “free persons of color.” North Carolina census listers in the mid-1800s were instructed to place all free people into one of three categories: white, black, or mulatto. In these records, many of the family names listed in certain areas are names of families considered Indian in their own communities. It is also obvious that some of the names are Indian names but the persons are not listed as Indian. For example, the 1830 listing of “Free Negro heads of household” contains the following family names from locations where Indian populations were known to reside: Twopence, Stamper, Pilgreen, Cypress, Santee, Braveboy, Corn, Duck, and Ash.

In many areas there was a conscious effort on the part of the whites to push the Indian people into the black category and leave them there. The reasons, in some cases, were economic. For example, beginning in the early 1800s North Carolina routinely provided schools for whites. After the Civil War, spurred by the efforts of the Freedmen’s Bureau, the state began to provide schools for blacks. Indian people were not permitted to attend white schools; it was much cheaper in the Indians attended black schools, saving the state the expense and effort of establishing a third school system.

Indians resisted attending black schools and being officially classified as black. In the century following the Civil War, Indian communities responded in a variety of ways. In some areas, particularly where the number of Indian families was small or unorganized, the Indian children did attend schools with blacks, sometimes coexisting happily and sometimes not. Fights and name-calling between the two groups were not uncommon. In other areas with large enough numbers of Indian families, a school was usually built by the Indians themselves; the teacher would be a member of the tribe or a white from a nearby town. The schools were often drafty, poorly equipped, and woefully deficient by modern standards; yet they were a source of pride to the community, providing a focus for the people’s Indian identity.

Another alternative was simply not to send the children to school at all. When this course was followed, school officials seldom tried hard to bring the students in. Many officials seemed to think that schooling was wasted on “those people” anyway.

Many Indian people had mixed feelings when their tribal schools closed. Although they realized the children would be getting better facilities, more courses, and possibly greater opportunities, they were saddened to see their schools, one of the few symbols of their distinctness as a people, passing out of use. The last of these all-Indian schools closed in the late 1960s, but a few still retain their Indian identity because the student body is almost entirely Indian. This is especially true in Pembroke.

Segregation along biracial or triracial lines also existed in other spheres of life. Where the Indian population was small, Indians usually had to use the “colored” public facilities, which were always inferior to those provided for whites. In areas where there were significant numbers of Indians, however, separate facilities were set up for each of the three races. It was not uncommon, for example, for a movie theater to have three seating sections with the whites sitting downstairs and the balcony divided in half, the Indians on one side and blacks on the other.

Particularly in the years before desegregation, Indians in the South were constantly faced with the question of how and where they fit in. Over and over it was brought home that they simply did not belong, did not have a place in a state and society that recognized only two races. Even today, the official preference is that a person identify him- or herself as either black or white.

Part of the problem for Indians in the South today lies in the misconceptions held by the general public, both black and white, concerning what an Indian is. Most people, even some Indians, have the notion that “real” Indians speak in grunts, monosyllables, or broken English; if a person has curly hair or blue eyes, or does not live in a tepee and eat sticks, bark, and raw meat, he’s not a “real” Indian. This attitude causes a great deal of frustration for Indian people both as individuals and as groups, and has led many present-day Indians in North Carolina and throughout the South to “adopt” traditions from other Indian tribes to replace what they have lost. Any North Carolina powwow includes various types of crafts, songs, and dances borrowed from other, chiefly Western, tribes.

As communities organize into formal groups, for the Indian people to receive formal recognition is a matter of the state’s merely acknowledging what the Indian people have known all along. The act of the state granting recognition to a group, however, does not necessarily change the opinions of the other people in the community. A black or white person who has grown up convinced that the Indians across the river are simply “light-skinned blacks” is not going to change simply because the legislature says suddenly that these people “really are Indians.” In fact, it is not unusual for a group of Indian people attempting to organize and assert their identity to meet with ridicule and even hostility from both whites and blacks. The most common charge leveled is that the Indians are trying to get out of their place, and be superior to “other blacks.”

To publicly declare one’s Indian identity is a hard decision for many individuals to make, and yet many have gone ahead, faced the problems, and come through it stronger in the end. After 400 years of uncertainty, the Indians of North Carolina are coming full circle, back to being a proud people. They are learning their own history, and teaching it to their children. And through their work and example, North Carolina Indians are providing an example to Indian people throughout the South.

Perhaps within the next generation, the biracial society of the South will, along with separate bathrooms, be a thing of the past.