Snyder on Oakley, 'Keeping the Circle: American Indian Identity In Eastern North Carolina, 1885-2004'

Christopher Arris Oakley
Christina Snyder

Christopher Arris Oakley. Keeping the Circle: American Indian Identity In Eastern North Carolina, 1885-2004. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2005. ix + 191 pp. $50.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8032-3574-8.

Reviewed by Christina Snyder (McNeil Center for Early American Studies, University of Pennsylvania) Published on H-NC (August, 2007)

American Indians in Post-Removal North Carolina

Inside of the Center for the Study of the American South's new home--the historic Love House on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill--hangs a collection of Billy Barnes's photographs. Taken throughout North Carolina during the mid-1960s, the photos document poverty, protest, and reform: President Lyndon Johnson appears alongside a family of white tenant farmers; Howard Fuller and his marshals march the streets of downtown Durham following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King; a group of African American boys playfully box outside of the Winston-Salem Boys' Club. Included in this collection is a 1964 photograph of two Indian children standing at the door of a cabin in Halifax County, their curious gaze fixed on some unknown object in the distance. In one sense, the photo meshes well with the others on display--the children's clothing and house indicate that they are members of a poor, rural community, precisely the sort targeted by the War on Poverty. However, the image is also extraordinary because it moves beyond the traditional white-and-black narrative of post-removal Southern history and offers a glimpse into the little-known saga of North Carolina Indians, people simultaneously Southern and Indian.

In a simple, powerful way, Barnes's photograph reveals that at least some Native Americans evaded expulsion and remained in their homeland. Christopher Arris Oakley plunges more deeply into the rich, but little-known history of Indians in eastern North Carolina in this important addition to the University of Nebraska Press's Indians of the Southeast Series. Specifically, he investigates how groups of Indians in eastern North Carolina managed to retain their separate Indian identity from the Jim Crow era to the present. Now numbering over 90,000, these Native Americans include "the Coharies, the Haliwa-Saponis, the Lumbees, the Meherrins, the Occaneechi-Saponis, the Person County Indians, the Tuscaroras, and the Waccamaw-Siouans" (p. 12).

Throughout this period, Natives of eastern North Carolina confronted racist assaults and challenges to their Indian ancestry from outsiders, but they adopted various strategies to preserve their separate identity. During the Jim Crow era, Indians became subject to institutionalized segregation and lost their voting rights. However, they resisted classification as "free persons of color" along with African Americans. As Oakley explains, "While white southerners created Jim Crow biracial segregation, North Carolina Indians actively responded by asserting and protecting their own racial identity" (p. 39). Criteria for inclusion in eastern North Carolina's Indian communities fluctuated over time, but several elements remained constant: descent from the area's original inhabitants, kinship networks, a deep connection to the land, oral traditions about their culture and history, and residence in certain communities. Although influenced by the federal government's use of blood quantum, Native groups in eastern North Carolina also used more traditional modes of self-understanding, such as kinship and community, to determine membership. In the Jim Crow era, groups established Indian-only schools and churches. These separate spaces became the foundation of community life, where Native-controlled institutions defined who belonged and what it meant to be Indian.

Until the Second World War, most Indians in eastern North Carolina lived in isolated, rural communities, but wartime service and the manufacturing boom pushed Indians into mainstream society. According to Oakley, these economic and social changes threatened the ironically empowering autonomy Indians had enjoyed under segregation. By the 1950s, desegregation forced the close of Indian-only schools, a prospect that many North Carolina Indians feared would lead to cultural loss. Oakley explains that North Carolina Indians responded by reviving an older form of political organization--the tribe. Tribal governments began to take over of the political functions previously held by schools and churches: they worked toward Indian civil rights, the promotion of sovereignty, and the development of intertribal organizations. Native North Carolinians also asserted their Indian identity by participating in broader pan-Indian cultural movements of 1960s and 1970s, especially powwows. These cultural celebrations allowed Native North Carolinians to highlight their unique culture while simultaneously building intertribal bonds.

Today, Native North Carolinians continue to work toward empowering themselves politically and economically, and they have achieved significant progress since Billy Barnes visited that modest Haliwa cabin some forty years ago. Yet, poverty, unemployment, and high-school dropout rates remain high in Indian communities. Seeking the acknowledgement and benefits of federal recognition, several groups have lobbied their congressional representatives to introduce bills or have applied through the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Unfortunately, as Oakley demonstrates, the route to federal recognition remains expensive, complex, and highly politicized. This battle, however, is only the latest episode in centuries of struggle. The history of North Carolina Indians demonstrates that they will continue to survive as a separate people.

Everyone interested in Southern or Native American history should pick up this eminently readable book. Oakley illuminates the history of eastern North Carolina Indians while situating their story within the broader narrative of both American Indian and U.S. history. The book's accessible prose and straightforward organization make it ideal for use in undergraduate courses--especially once the University of Nebraska Press releases a paperback edition this fall. Oakley draws upon federal documents, tribal records, and oral histories to paint a vibrant portrait of the people who "refused to disappear" (p. 9). By telling the story of Indians in postbellum North Carolina, Keeping the Circle represents an important step toward a more inclusive narrative of Southern history. Helpfully, Oakley concludes his book with a bibliographic essay for those who wish to further develop this rich, but often ignored, aspect of the region's past. Surely, many will answer the call.

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