Native American Studies and History, at least in their strictest sense, can make for uncomfortable bedfellows. The inherently political and interdisciplinary project of the former can buck the austere traditions of the latter. Calls for scholarly work grounded in the lived experiences of Indian peoples by practitioners of Native American Studies went for years unheeded by professional historians, too deep in the archives to reckon with the descendants of their study’s object. A new generation of historians has thankfully challenged this divide, producing rich studies of Native history from an insider’s perspective. Malinda Maynor Lowery’s Lumbee Indians in the Jim Crow South: Race, Identity, & the Making of Nation (UNC Press) joins this promising historiography, documenting with clarity, detail and eloquence the experiences of the Lumbees – the largest Native nation east of the Mississippi – during the South’s most rigid period of racial apartheid.
To call this a work of only Native American History, however, limits its potential contribution. Like Glenda Gilmore’s Gender and Jim Crow, Lowery upends the traditional boundaries of studies in the post-Reconstruction South by focusing on a previously neglected position. “What were the contours and boundaries of racial segregation for Native American southerners?” Lowery asks.“How did their identities function, and how did the concept of race become institutionalized out of an identity based on kinship and settlement?” (20) The answers are complex, varied and often surprising.
Consider, for instance, the Mayor of Pembroke, North Carolina, who demanded that the Atlantic Coastline Railroad build three separate waiting rooms at the town’s train station: black, white, and Indian. The Lumbees, Mayor McInnis noted in his request, refused to wait in the “colored” area. While the mayor accepted this rejection as reasonable, he was nonetheless alarmed that Indians were often permitted by railroad agents to sit among whites (51). Other whites seized this ambiguity. Lowery recounts her own father’s experience as a union organizer at a carpet manufacturer in Robeson County. To win his support, the plant manager offered Lowery’s father a “small privilege of whiteness,” the use of the white restroom, when no one else was looking (122).
These stories articulate the slippages of race in Robeson County, home to the Lumbee people since well before the nation’s founding. But they make up only one part of Lowery’s story. Equally fascinating – and of significance to anyone studying identify formation in America’s racial milieu –is Lowery’s thorough discussion of who the Lumbees are and how they understand themselves. Lacking a treaty with the United States that guarantees certain standing vis-à-vis the federal government and its colonial position as arbiter of “Indianness,” the Lumbees nevertheless maintained a distinct identity throughout all their various classifications by politicians, bureaucrats and academics. Viewing identity as a historical process rather than a fixed constant, Lowery demonstrates how the Lumbees, a people living in constant tension with non-Indian labels, “took that tension and used it to carve out their own sense of nationhood” (xii). In the Jim Crow period, that often meant adopting or adapting to segregation to protect a distinct Lumbee identity. Echoing a literature on whiteness not directly addressed here, Lowery maintains, “Race is not merely ascribed by dominant groups but also claimed for strategic purposes” (xv).
If identity is a “conversation between insiders and outsiders,” Lowery is an able interlocutor. She makes no attempt to mask her personal investment in Lumbee history; indeed, it’s central to her methodology. Perhaps this leads Lowery to take a gentler read of certain episodes. Lowery writes, for instance, “While some Indians were undoubtedly as racist as whites, evidence of this fact most often comes from whites, who had every reason to shape the discourse of race in terms that would support their own supremacy.” Whites in North Carolina surely advanced their own agenda through Lumbee racism, but as Lowery acknowledges elsewhere Lumbees too benefited from white supremacy in certain respects and actively participated in its maintenance. Nowhere does the book come anywhere close to apologetics, but an African American living in Robeson County might come to different conclusions regarding culpability. Nevertheless, Lowery’s “autoethnographic” approach is a deeply rewarding experience for the reader, infusing the text with a palpable connection between the author and her subject. The audible presence of Lowery’s voice in the text, including the frequent use of personal pronouns, may be frustrating to some historians, but they should set aside such disciplinary prejudices for this important work.
Andrew Epstein UGA
Andrew is a graduate student in History and Native American Studies at the University of Georgia, where he is currently writing his M.A. thesis on Haudenosaunee nationalism, land rights, and citizenship in early 20th century New York. He hosts a monthly podcast series called New Book in Native American Studies and is a member of the Graduate Reading Group in the History of Capitalism. Andrew’s previous contribution to Bowtied and Fried, a piece on the legacy of John Brown, was one of the blog’s most visited guest features.