- “Too Light to Be Black, Too Dark to Be White”Redefining Occaneechi Identity through Community Education
The state of North Carolina is home to the largest contemporary population of American Indian people east of the Mississippi River, and among this population the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation is one of the smallest tribes, counting approximately seven hundred members who reside primarily in Alamance and Orange Counties. The Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation is also one of the most recently recognized tribes by the state of North Carolina. The tribe reorganized in 1984 as the Eno-Occaneechi Indian Association and received recognition from the state of North Carolina only in 2002, following a long legal battle with the North Carolina Commission of Indian Affairs. Many of the present-day tribal members recalled knowing little of their American Indian heritage as children and being encouraged not to speak of it in public; as such, members of the reorganized tribe have devoted much effort to recovering historical information about the Occaneechis, displaying this information to the local community, and strengthening their American Indian identities. In 2004, the tribe created the Homeland Preservation Project—an open-air museum consisting of a series of reconstructions of Occaneechi ways of life—as a historical preservation project for the tribe and an educational resource for teaching visitors about Occaneechi history.
The Homeland Preservation Project is a type of new museum, a category that includes other tribal museums and ethnic museums made possible by fundamental changes in museum philosophy since the 1960s.1 While museums have long been an authoritative knowledge source in Western culture, new museums have come to constitute an educational space that increasingly concerns itself with alternative constructions [End Page 95] of knowledge that have not historically been accommodated by mainstream museums or formal classrooms. Many indigenous groups have taken advantage of these developments by creating tribal museums, each guided by the tribe’s own history, population, culture, and set of circumstances. Tribal museums and other alternative museums have emerged as sites of struggle over representation and the revision of the past.2 Examining small, local museums in the United States as sites of active production, performance, and navigation of culture and identity can contribute to the scholarly understanding of the transformative cultural process of self-representation. Much theoretical and case-study literature confirms the expanding role of new museums in society, and this case study provides an opportunity to examine ways in which educational and cultural heritage representations were planned and performed by an indigenous group to not only inform non-indigenous members of the local community but to provide an educational service to their own members as well.3
The Homeland Preservation Project that the Occaneechi people created likewise communicates an alternative narrative about Occaneechi history and culture to challenge that which visitors might find at a more mainstream history museum or that which students might learn in schools. The Homeland Preservation Project provides the Occaneechi people involved in it with opportunities to construct, exercise, and display an identity that has been contested in the past. The museum has given the Occaneechi people an opportunity to represent themselves, and it goes hand-in-hand with the tribe’s efforts to become more visible in their community. This study examines the experiences of Occaneechi people planning and executing the Homeland Preservation Project in order to explore the importance that tribal members and staff place on the revitalization of past knowledge and the construction of contemporary Occaneechi identity after many decades of racialized identity politics. Education has become a central focus of the contemporary tribe, and the Homeland Preservation Project is the staging ground for many educational programs and events. The study reveals evidence of program planning that aims to decolonize the knowledge presented about American Indian culture and history by reshaping contemporary Occaneechi identities through the recovery and sharing of historical and cultural knowledge.
This study of the Occaneechi Homeland Preservation Project uses naturalistic qualitative inquiry to learn how the goals and mission of [End Page 96] educational initiatives have been envisioned and enacted by tribal members.4 I gathered data through interviews conducted with tribal council members...