In the 1990s I made a short documentary film about Lumbee Indian gospel music, a topic that addressed one of the perennial questions about Lumbees: how can we be "real Indians" while looking, acting, and talking so much like other Southerners? The best scenes were the ones with the music and the food, at my grandparents' house, down a dirt road just north of Pembroke, North Carolina. On Thanksgiving, the day we were filming, my cousin described for me the question he often got about Lumbees: "What kind of food do you all eat?" they ask. "Well I like my mom's fried chicken the best," he says. "That's our food, that's Lumbee food." The real question these well-intentioned folks are asking is, "how can you be Indians if you don't fit my stereotype?"
Case in point: one of my New York-born film crew members thought that spending Thanksgiving with the Indians was ironic, because Indians aren't supposed to be celebrating the moment that represents our conquest. It also surprised him that we were Christians. When he said this, my father looked at him with an expression that bespoke the opposite of irony and said, "Well, for us it's a harvest celebration. We thank God for each other and the food." Thanksgiving's actual meaning—the one behind the myth—had never occurred to my New York friend, who had also never eaten anything procured directly from the field or a garden.
But our stove, oven, and table were full of such things that day, and full of singing. While my mother and aunts sang hymns a cappella and in flawless harmony as they fried cornbread, my uncle played keyboard nearby with a round of cousins singing along. And my grandmother chimed in as she chopped the day's collards. The hymn of choice, one of my grandmother's favorites and the one we sang at her funeral two years later, was "Hard Workin' Pilgrim." Because she worked, as she cooked, as she sang, as she lived.
The answer to the question is simple: Lumbees are not a stereotype. We're Indians, Southerners, and Americans, all at once and without doubt. To understand us as Indians, the outsider might have to adjust his ears, eyes, and palate. Indians change, like everyone else, but we remain Indians.
We remain Indians because instead of doing things the "original" way, we do things the appropriate way, which is to say, we share, we remember, we retain our dignity, despite the stereotypes. We don't forget, even though others have largely forgotten, the role of Indian people in creating what we now know as "Southern" food.
Rayna Green established that indigenous ingredients are at the heart of Southern cuisine, and that newcomers in the South adopted Native growing and cooking techniques. In her 2008 Southern Cultures article, "Mother Corn and the Dixie Pig: Native Food in the Native South," you might as well call Southern foodways, Indian foodways, if you want to give proper credit to the people who originated it. The irony is not that we celebrate Thanksgiving or that we go to church, the irony is that after taking our land, white landlords routinely denied our sharecropping families enough land to grow gardens, and now our Indian communities are food deserts. Our new neighbors have appropriated the abundance our own ancestors cultivated, denied it to us, and then marginalized our influence on "their" cuisine.
And yet the stories behind our food traditions ring not with irony but with simplicity of purpose, joy, and good taste. Lumbee Indians are proud to be Southerners, and we happily claim "y'all" too. The people who were interviewed by oral historian Sara Wood for a Southern Cultures project were chosen—by Sara, Lumbee folklorist Jeff Currie, and myself—not necessarily for their charismatic power as influencers of taste, nor for their authentic adherence to the "real" way, but for their proper stewardship of the exchanges that have forged our survival.
The Lumbee voices we featured have used food as a route to economic independence; Callie Mae Locklear exemplifies this story. But independence means nothing without reciprocity, without sharing and exchanging so that we can survive. First we share with our families, as Emma Locklear and Eric Locklear (no relation) learned from their elders. Then we share with others, even with those who have taken from us. Dobbs Oxendine and Dorsey and Glenn Hunt describe the Old Foundry restaurant and the collard sandwich; Lumbees have worked to build these and many other things, not just for ourselves but for others. To understand food, as to understand music, or religion, one must not focus only on origins, but on exchange.
Malinda Maynor Lowry is an associate professor of history at UNC-Chapel Hill. This piece was reprinted with permission and originally published in Southern Cultures 21, no. 1 (Spring 2015) www.southerncultures.org