by Sarah Buchanan –
It begins in elementary school.
As children we sit there, crisscrossed, and they tell us about the history of our nation. Our teachers say that the Natives were the original people of our land, that they helped us lay the foundations of crops and survival for our new beginning. And, in many ways, that’s true. But what they don’t say, at least not at first, is that we didn’t give them that same respect. In fact, we stole their land and butchered their bison, if only to force away the very people whose lands we took with blood and cruelty. Since our arrival, there has been a crisis for Native Americans—we have misplaced them, and even to this very day, they remain in the gray space of recovery not yet fulfilled.
The United States has an unfortunate and disgraceful history of genocide and mass racial relocation. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., once said, “Our nation was born in genocide when it embraced the doctrine that the original American, the Indian, was an inferior race. Even before there were large numbers of Negroes on our shores, the scar of racial hatred had already disfigured colonial society.”
In the state of North Carolina, this history is extremely prevalent, and yet somehow still underacknowledged. The Trail of Tears took place across numerous states in the South, relocating approximately 100,000 Natives from their homeland. North Carolina was not only complacent; our legislature and government had a direct hand in affecting Indigenous lives.
We built roads and militia forts for the sole sake of Indian removal, including the Great State Road of Franklin and Fort Butler to sell indigenous lands. This paints an ugly, disfigured portrait of how we treated those who came before us, and how the past still manages to repeat itself in unassuming and unsuspecting ways.
North Carolina as a whole has forgotten not only about the natives of the past, but the natives of the present, as well. Native women are three times as likely to experience violence and twice as likely to be sexually violated than women of other races. In this state alone, 90 cases of missing indigenous women dating back to 1994 remain unsolved.
Take the case of Faith Hedgepeth, a Lumbee sophomore at UNC Chapel Hill, who was found with brutalizing head injuries in her own dorm after a night out. Take the case of Rhonda Jones, her corpse found upside down and in a state of decomposition in a trash can. Jones’s mother received inconclusive autopsy results only after a year of pressuring investigators for them, by which the results were useless in finding the killer.
These incidences being so local, but also so unheard, speak volumes. I have never heard so much of a mention of these women, nor the many other women who have suffered at the hands of Native American invisibility. History has shown a pattern of tossing indigenous concerns and wellbeing aside, to be addressed later, to be left alone. No longer can we be idle with the rise of violence towards our native sisters, and no longer can we be complacent in their absences.
We have founded a culture that has led to these troubling and disturbing crime statistics, not only in our past actions and influences, but in our everyday lives as well.
My aunt carries the native features of my grandfather: darkened skin and eyes, a signature indigenous nose and stature. From her younger years onward, she has been belittled—teased, called slurs by her own family members in a joking manner, given ‘Indian’-themed gag gifts, and never quite encouraged to connect with her culture.
She bleached her skin in the early 2000s before I was born, and although you can still see her heritage on her face, I wish I could have been around to see it in her skin. Because it is not just violent crimes that arise out of unfathomable depths, it is a history and mindset of constantly treating the first humans of this continent as lesser. It is constantly belittling, demonizing, and forcing misconceptions of savagery onto what we don’t want to understand.
But while these problems are large and intimidating, they are not quite insurmountable. North Carolina must acknowledge a more in-depth look at our local history of Native genocide, from the past and present, and the historical landmarks made to serve that very purpose. We must purge ourselves of indifference, strive to spread awareness of our missing native women, look into local cases, and demand more investigation for victims who never received justice.
We cannot undo the past, but we can create a better present, a better future, for Native Americans. At the very start of our nation, they helped us establish a new beginning. Now it is our turn to start a new beginning of prosperity for them—and that begins with acknowledgement.