In the 1950s and 60s, thousands of Lumbee American Indians moved to Baltimore from Lumberton, N.C., for jobs in factories and the like. But The Sun Magazine also covered a group that chose a more rural destination: St. Mary’s County. Legendary Sun photographer A. Aubrey Bodine documented two Lumbee families that had been share croppers back in North Carolina but were able to purchase land in Maryland.
The photos — and story that accompanied it — showed how one Maryland Piscataway Indian named Philip S. Proctor encouraged Lumbee to embrace native cultural aspects like regalia and pow wows. “They did not know what it really meant to be Indian,” he asserted in The Sun. “They had no language and no culture.”
Proctor’s statement may seem quite arrogant, or just plain false from a 2016 perspective. Clearly the Lumbee had both a language and a culture — even if they didn’t fit Proctor’s expectations. But his statement reflects the sentiment that Lumbee were somehow different from other native groups.
Perhaps this was a product of their own history: the Lumbee tribe was in fact an amalgamation of several different tribes that joined together after the arrival of European settlers, which decimated native populations. In the process of unification, Lumbee adopted English as their language and Christianity as the religion, these being two of the main common denominators among them.
“So when Europeans arrived, and the diseases that they brought decimated so many people, the survivors essentially banded together and created new communities,” said Malinda Maynor Lowery, a history professor at UNC Chapel Hill who is of Lumbee descent. “So during that process, a lot of our original languages were lost, a lot of memory around original religious practices were lost, and Christianity and English were probably the things that the most people had in common basically.”
Some historians through the centuries have suggested that the Lumbee include descendants from the lost colony of Roanoke — which famously disappeared from the island, leaving only a tree engraved with the words “CROATOAN.” (Many Lumbee previously identified as Croatan).
Lowery says such “lost colony” theories are problematic — elevating the importance of whites in Lumbee history and undermining their indigeneity. “Part of colonization is to erase the indigenous people of the continent, right?”