This post is part of a series intended to introduce first-year students to the diverse history of Duke and Durham. These posts are brief introductions, but include more detailed resources for further reading and exploration.
Many formal gatherings in the Americas begin with acknowledgement and prayer for the indigenous people of the past, and to honor those among us now. Other examples of respect are the Duke Forest Land Acknowledgement Statement and the Eno River Association’s Land Acknowledgement which bow to the Yésah, “the people”, the collection of tribes who have lived on the North Carolina and Virginia Piedmonts. As you find your way to class, you may wonder who was walking over Duke’s campus 1200 years ago. Where are their descendants?
North Carolina has the highest number of Native Americans east of the Mississippi. A map reconstructing ancient languages of the Southeast identifies three clusters: Iroquois, Siouan, and Muskhogean. Two range across the state. To the west are the Iroquois linguistic family, the present-day Eastern Band of Cherokee. In the Piedmont, southern, and the eastern parts of the State are the remaining tribes of the Siouan (Tutelo) linguistic family: Coharie, Haliwa-Saponi, Sappony, Waccamaw, Meherrin, Lumbee, and Occaneechi.
How far back can we go in order to imagine the people who lived here? Much of what we know draws on archaeological evidence from the Haw River Drainage area, Yadkin River, and Roanoke Rapids. The Research Laboratories of Archaeology at the University of North Carolina includes a list of contextual excavations going back to 10,000 BC in the Piedmont—where you are now– with descriptions of culture and life for every age, starting with the Clovis culture of the Pleistocene. The Ancient North Carolinians website includes a pre-Colonial section for the Central Piedmont.
More recent accounts, summarized in NCPedia, describe the Occaneechi and Sappony nations as documented by Europeans starting in the 17th century. There are also accounts of the more ancient Shakori and Eno tribes of the Piedmont, and the Tuscarora towards the east. Two centuries later, Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act of 1830 began the forced removal of the Cherokee from Georgia in the Trail of Tears. A band of 300-400 escaped to the mountains in western North Carolina, and eventually bought what is now the Qualla reservation. It is from there that Duke’s first Native American students arrived in 1881 to attend Trinity College and the Cherokee Industrial School.
Contemporary native communities closest to Duke include the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation, in Orange and Alamance Counties to the west of Durham, and the Sappony to the north in Person County. The website for UNC’s Native American Center provides contact information for each nation, pointing to newspapers, councils and leaders, as well as a map of the 8 tribal nations recognized by the State of North Carolina. There are four urban Indian organizations, including the Triangle Native American Association. Closer to home is the Duke University Native American Student Alliance chartered in 1992.
This isn’t enough to understand what’s beneath your feet, or to recognize who might be walking beside you. In the mixture of oral traditions, documentation, and historical interpretations, what are the real stories? You can visit the excavations closest to Duke in Hillsborough, with evidence from the late Woodland Period from 1000 to 1600 AD. They include a reconstruction of an Occaneechi Village from 300 years ago. Watch the calendar for Pow Wows in North Carolina, find out what to expect and become familiar with the appropriate etiquette if it’s your first one. There are many ways to honor and celebrate Native Americans at Duke.
To get a start on learning more:
Adams, David W. 2020. Education for extinction: American Indians and the boarding school experience, 1875-1928. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas
Chaffin, Nora Campbell. 1950. Trinity College, 1839-1892: the beginnings of Duke University. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
Coe, Joffre Lanning. 2006. The formative cultures of the Carolina Piedmont. Raleigh, N.C.: Office of Archives and History, North Carolina Dept. of Cultural Resources.
Gillispie, Valerie. 2018. “Retro: Native Americans at Trinity in the Nineteenth Century,” Duke Magazine (February 7).
Ingram, Jill Elizabeth. 2008. Man in the middle : the boarding school education of Will West Long. MA Thesis, Western Carolina University.
Ward, H. Trawick, and R. P. Stephen Davis. 1999. Time before history: the archaeology of North Carolina. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.