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  • Re-Membering Our Own PowerOccaneechi Activism, Feminism, and Political Action Theories
  • Marshall Jeffries (bio)

The feminist decolonization project seeks the integration of spiritual, psychological, and physical health, or rather the recognition that these elements cannot exist outside of their interrelation. The question of how to hold all these elements together in our thinking and activism is a question of practice. Reconstructing tradition and memory is a vital element of indigenous survival, and there is nothing simple or one-dimensional about the process of reconstruction.

Lisa Kahaleole Hall, Kanaka Maoli scholar

Tucked away in the rural township of Pleasant Grove, North Carolina, a small American Indian tribe formally known as the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation (obsn) fights to maintain a modern existence. The area now known as Pleasant Grove was settled by Occaneechi farmers and tenant farmers in the 1780s and would come to be the permanent home of the tribe, which had migrated in response to violence, encroachment, and force.1 By the early 1980s members of the Occaneechi community recognized the growing threat of full assimilation and cultural extinction and formed a tribal organization that would spend nearly twenty years fighting the state of North Carolina for tribal recognition.

Since state recognition was achieved in 2002, members of this small, tight-knit community have been engaged in grassroots efforts to undo the many damages caused by white settler colonialism. While members of the community proudly proclaim activist identities, little of their postrecognition achievements would appear to result from legitimate political action as it is understood in academic discourses. Activism is normally defined by attempts to directly challenge the power of the state, leaving little room for the types of work that Occaneechi activists describe.2 This analysis will draw on the work [End Page 160] of feminist and Indigenous scholars to demonstrate the fundamentally political nature of this small tribal community’s courageous efforts to reclaim power over their own history and identity and to restore traditions that have been all but annihilated through the legislative efforts of the state and a toxic local racial environment.

Because of a shared position in the local agricultural economy, along with residential proximity, Occaneechi residents of Pleasant Grove have forged deep alliances with African Americans and poor whites in the region. The realities of racial mixing and cultural assimilation are apparent, along with long-lasting effects of eugenic and antimiscegenation laws that directly challenged the legal identities of local American Indians.3 Despite these realities many families in the community have held on to traditions and an American Indian identity. Yet some Occaneechi continue to live in fear of publicly identifying as Indian because of the ongoing legacy of racism and white supremacy.

The legal pursuit to gain recognition paid off in 2002 when a state Supreme Court ruling declared the obsn the eighth state-recognized tribe in North Carolina. The legislative fight for recognition took a great deal of effort and was accomplished with severely limited resources. In addition to petitioning the colonialist state government for a right to exist as a political entity, the Occaneechi faced hostility from other tribes in the state that pointed to the prevalent intermarriage between Occaneechi people and African Americans as evidence of inauthenticity. White supremacy and antiblack racism have long shaped Indian communities, forcing a strict division between Natives and African descendants.4

Further complicating the Occaneechi petition for tribal status were political definitions used by the state to measure the legitimacy of tribes. The standards for recognition at the state level are based on federal requirements used by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. One such requirement at both the state and the federal levels is that a “legitimate” tribe must have maintained a political presence since colonization.5 This is mostly impossible for many of the region’s tribes, which, like the Occaneechi, were forced to hide in order to evade persecution and removal.6 Ultimately, the success of the Occaneechi in the North Carolina Supreme Court gave new visibility to a community that had been more or less invisible to outsiders for more than a century.

With state recognition accomplished, Occaneechi activists would shift their attention away from the...


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pp. 160-195
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