‘Any Space I Inhabit is Indigenous’


By Dezarae Churchill

November is Indigenous People’s Heritage Month and North Carolina is home to one of the largest Indigenous populations east of the Mississippi River.

About 3% of North Carolina’s population is Indigenous, or more than 300,000 people, according to Census data.  The North Carolina tribes are the Eastern Band of Cherokee, Coharie, Lumbee, Haliwa-Saponi, Sappony, Meherrin, Occaneechi Band of Saponi Nation, and Waccamaw-Siouan.

To honor them, the William Peace University Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, or DEI, created a space for conversation and celebration of those belonging to Native communities.

Leah Young, director of the DEI office, led the Nov. 9 discussion, “Native at Peace,” which featured WPU senior Shelby Wolfe and alumna Megan Hoffner. 

The event began with a land and labor acknowledgment before the web chat — as do all DEI events — noting that the land on which WPU is founded was unethically procured from Indigenous people, and the foundations that built our city were built upon the backs of forced servitude.

Young asked the panelists a series of questions relating to their experiences as Indigenous people. Here is what Hoffner and Wolfe had to say.

What is a cultural practice that you think makes Indigenous and Native folks special?

Hoffner regards her connection to family and community as the predominant source of identity. Keeping families close is one of the foundations of Indigenous culture, as well as honoring their ancestors.  

Hoffner also said that in giving someone handmade art, they are presenting a piece of themselves as part of the gift.

“We really strive to do things with goodness in our heart,” she said. “If you ever meet any Indigenous artists… one of the things we have within our culture is, especially if it is going to be given to someone, is to always hold goodness and happiness… positivity while you are creating, making something.”

What has your experience been navigating different spaces as a Native person?

Hoffner shared what her mother said when she was young; that stuck with her throughout her life: “Any space that I inhabit is Indigenous, I don’t know how to inhabit any other way.”

Growing up, Hoffner recalled her childhood history lesson and the word choice of “Indian,” and the stares coming from every direction of the room. She feels comfortable with identifying as Indian, though she says she’s seen the discomfort expressed by her white peers.

While she has often found herself to be “the token Indian,” she struggles with the perception of her classmates’ misplaced belief that she could speak on behalf of the Native community.

Wolfe remembers her first grade lunchroom, at her predominantly white school.

“You can’t sit with us because you’re chocolate milk, referring to the fact that I was brown and they were white,” Wolfe said. “I didn’t understand because it was first grade. That was the first time my parents sat me down, and said that will probably happen more often the older you get.” 

The statement “What are you?” and “what percentage of ‘x’ are you?” are two microaggressions Indigenous people experience. Wolfe reflects on how that can diminish one’s identity; whether someone is full Native or multiracial, they share the same culture.

Let’s talk microaggressions and stereotypes…

“Do they still have teepees?” is a question Hoffner is asked often.

Hoffner chuckled as she offers a reminder that when her people were documented they were residing in log style homes and wearing cotton clothing.

Wolfe is a transfer student and experienced discrimination from her previous school. The basketball coach would make derogatory remarks about her Cherokee heritage, causing her to leave the school.

Indigenous people are often misrepresented in the media, and are classified as “other.” The lack of space provided in the media is often frustrating.

Once Hollywood has a certain ethnic category filled, they often use the same actor to represent the community repeatedly. The example Hoffman used was actor, Gil Birmingham, best known for his role in Twilight.

In her opinion, he has also become a “token Indian” in that sense. 

What do you want Non-Native people to know about Indigenous people?

“I wish more people were comfortable about being ignorant, but open to learning,” Hoffner said.

History museums are a good way to learn about Indigenous history. The ladies of this discussion welcome anyone interested in learning more about their communities to attend an inter-tribal Pow Wow. There are many non-Indigenous people who are there to learn as well.

Prior to pandemic closures, NC State University’s Office of Multicultural Student Affairs partnered with the Native American Association on campus to host a Pow Wow.

The event provided a safe place for engagement without the perception or fear of tokenizing Indigenous communities. This event was hosted during the Spring.

Leah Young plans to coordinate to welcome WPU students on NC State’s campus for a future event, to be determined.

How can non-Native folks center the needs of Indigenous and Native folks?

The speakers offered several ideas. 

  1. Listen to the Red Justice Podcast, which highlights the missing and murdered Indigenous women and is hosted by two Lumbee women from Hoffner’s tribe.
  2. Donate to the missing women website, and help bring awareness to the indecencies faced by Indigenous people.
  3. Listen to the stories of Indigenous people. Tik Tok is an incredible tool that creates a platform for education. By using #indigenous hashtags, you can learn more about Indigenous communities by listening to firsthand experiences.
  4. Buy from local artists who choose to share part of their culture with you. Young said she purchased hand bead earrings from an Indigenous woman, and felt it was important to hear her story.
  5. Read Indigenous stories. On Nov. 29, the office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion will host the discussion centering around “IRL”, a collection of poetry by Tommy Pico. The conversation will be held on Zoom at 5 pm.

If you are interested in joining the planning team for future DEI events, reach out to Young. There is always room to get involved, and your voice is always valued. 

Photo taken by Hoffner at the Inter-Tribal Pow Wow on Oct. 30 at Dix Park in Raleigh.