ARTS & CULTURE
By Gregory DL Morris
Indigenous land acknowledgments are on the new trail maps in Battle Branch Park. Several of those trails lead to the UNC Center for Dramatic Art, where the show programs include a statement acknowledging that the center is on the “unceded lands of one or more” of the continent’s “original sovereign nations.”
As meaningful as those declarations are in redressing the historical record, local tribal leaders stress that indigenous nations and cultures must be acknowledged as vital part of the present and future, not just the past.
“The most important thing is that we are still here, on our ancestral land,” said Lawrence Dunmore III, former tribal chairman and a current tribal historian and folklorist with the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation. “We are one of the smaller tribes, with about 2,000 members, but we are still here.”
The home area for the Occaneechi is the greater historic Orange County, which today includes the present Orange, as well as parts of Alamance and Caswell counties. The headquarters and tribal center are on 25 acres about six miles north of Mebane. Members of the Occaneechi live and work around the area, and some elsewhere in the county.
According to the North Carolina History Project, “The Occannechi’s area offered economic and political power, notably in the area of deerskin exchange among the tribes connected by the Trading Path.”
“We are open to sharing our culture, including ecological and historical tourism, as long as it is respectful,” said Dunmore. “We have some of our tribal history on our website and can arrange tours of our reconstructed contact-period villages in Hillsborough and Mebane.”
The tribe’s annual powwow is in October. It is open to all to learn about tribal and indigenous history and to enjoy traditional music and dance, as well as food, crafts, and art.
Indigenous nations have worked since the 19th century to secure U.S. federal recognition. “There was a big push in the 1930s,” said Dunmore, “then again starting in the 1960s when many tribes were seeking federal recognition. The Occaneechi sought state recognition in the late 1980s and early 90s, and finally got it in 2002. The Tribe is currently working towards federal acknowledgment.” Dunmore is a licensed attorney and a program analyst in the Bureau of Trust Funds Administration, U.S. Department of the Interior.
The re-created village in Hillsborough is the second such replica, said Beverly Payne, a member of the tribal council who coordinates the project. “There was one in the late 90s that suffered a lot of vandalism,” she said. “This one we started in 2021, during Covid. We had a rededication in April 2022, and continue to work on it.”
The planning and construction are done by tribal members and a few local volunteers under an agreement with the Alliance for Historic Hillsborough.
“The palisade surrounding the village is accurate to scale of the post-hole maps we have from the archaeological dig of a village,” said Payne. “The three openings are also historically accurate. We don’t know how those were closed, but possibly with a gate made of wood and/or hides. We are just starting to add the wattle and daub to the palisade.”
The huts are a little larger than scale, to help show detail. “Each hut had a fire pit in the center and a smoke hole in the top,” said Payne. “Seven or eight people, usually an extended family, would live in each one.” Other details, such as the meat drying racks in the central cooking area, are being added. “The village will never really be finished,” Payne added with a laugh.
Before visiting the village, it is wise to spend some time at the Orange County Historical Museum in the center of Hillsborough. It has an extensive collection of Occaneechi artifacts and tools, some donated or on loan from Dunmore, on permanent display. Numerous maps and other displays detail the area’s indigenous history. In 2021 there was a more extensive temporary exhibit on the past and present of the Occaneechi. Highlights are available on the museum website.
Courtney Smith, exhibits and programs coordinator for the museum can answer questions and offer further insight before visitors walk the few blocks to the village site.