Author: Kyesha Jennings
In July 2021, the N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources Secretary D. Reid Wilson announced the appointments of Kerry Bird as director and Quinn Godwin as associate director of the newly created North Carolina American Indian Heritage Commission. Created by the 2021 State Budget Act, the commission is intended to aid the Secretary of Natural and Cultural Resources in preserving, interpreting, and promoting American Indian art, culture, and history.
Kerry Bird is an enrolled member of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate and is of Lumbee tribal heritage. He was part of the conversations about a collective desire for a state government-level group focused on American Indian history, arts, customs, and culture—talks that led to the commission’s creation. When Bird looked at the law that had established the African American Heritage Commission, he modified his group’s proposal to call specifically for an American Indian heritage commission. The information was then passed on to Representative Charles Graham, a member of the Lumbee tribe, and the only American Indian serving in the General Assembly. Graham introduced the legislation and got it passed by the 2021 General Assembly with recurring funds. Initially, Bird had a friend in mind whom he thought would be perfect for the director role, but when that person chose not to apply, he decided to apply himself. “I wanted to make sure that the commission was on sound footing. I was well aware of what its purpose would be and wanted to see it fulfilled and off to a great start,” Bird said.
Born and raised in Pembroke, North Carolina, Quinn Godwin is a member of the Lumbee Tribe and son of Harvey Godwin, Jr., the former Lumbee tribal chief. Quinn Godwin graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Dramatic Arts from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and holds a J.D. from the UNC School of Law, where he served as president of the UNC Native American Law Students Association in his final year. In late 2017 and 2018, Godwin completed the UNC American Indian Center’s Native Leadership Institute, as part of its third cohort. For the past four years, he has served as a field coordinator for Governor Roy Cooper’s Office of Public Engagement and Inclusion, where, among other tasks, he served as an outreach liaison to diverse communities across the state.
By the time he applied for the post on the American Indian Heritage Commission, he’d already had three years of experience working in state government. And though he wasn’t involved in the creation of the commission, he knew he wanted to maintain a career in state government. “I decided to really go after this and I actually interviewed for both roles. Having the opportunity to serve as associate director allows me to blend all of my skills, including my performance art background,” said Goodwin.
We spoke with Bird and Goodwin about the purpose of the American Indian Heritage Commission, projects that they're currently working on, their upbringing and involvement in Indian affairs, and the validity of land acknowledgments.
Kyesha: Can you talk a little bit about the purpose of the American Indian Heritage Commission and how its mission and vision differ from that of the North Carolina Commission of Indian Affairs?
Kerry: The North Carolina Commission of Indian Affairs was established in 1971 as a state agency that was in charge of overseeing the recognition of tribes in North Carolina. Their focus is policy and programming and they are housed in the North Carolina Department of Administration. So there was a need to have an organization in the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, much like the African American Heritage Commission, to look at American Indian art, history, culture, and customs. That's where we come in. We're about creating visibility for American Indians and programming in North Carolina. And since our department handles museums, state archives, state archeology, the zoo, museums, and all things that are arts-related, this was a good fit for us.
In addition to increasing the visibility of our community, we are also looking for ways that we can represent our community. Like, we were on a call yesterday about moonshine in motorsports, which is a big exhibit being developed that will roll out over the next two years. The department wanted to make sure that they had an American Indian perspective, and we were able to provide that and will continue to do so.
Kyesha: Growing up, was there something specific that inspired you to have a career that would allow you to advocate for your community?
Quinn: From 2016 to 2022, my dad served two consecutive terms as chairman of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina. From our discussions over those years and seeing his leadership in action, I gained a lot of insight into tribal governance and what it looks like to be a consistent and effective advocate for a state-recognized tribe. There are eight tribes in North Carolina, and only one of them (Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians) is fully federally recognized. The Lumbee, along with the other six state-recognized tribes, do not enjoy the benefits and privileges commonly associated with full federal recognition. We don't have reservations or land in trust with the government, nor our own hospitals or casinos. What little federal funding is available is mostly for housing assistance with strict rules on how to spend it. So there's definitely a distinction between state-recognized and federally recognized tribes. That's one aspect of the North Carolina native community that I think has to come through in our work, because the majority of American Indians in North Carolina are treated differently than federally recognized tribes with reservations and casinos. This is also evident in historical preservation efforts.
Kerry: My family and I were actually enrolled in my dad's tribe, in South Dakota. But we grew up in Pembroke, in the Lumbee community, and because of this, I'm very aware of the Lumbee experience. I didn't really question my Indian identity or need to explain it until I went to Governor’s School, which is a program of the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. Some people weren't aware of Indians, and if they were, they weren’t aware of the Lumbee specifically. So I had to start thinking about how I would define myself. When I went away to college, I was very involved in the American Indian Student Association at UNC Pembroke, and then when I transferred to Carolina, I was very involved in the Carolina Indian Circle. In 1984, I got involved with the creation of the Triangle Native American Society. As I've gotten older, I became more involved with Indian affairs and more educated about the American Indian experience.
Kyesha: What are you most excited about?
Kerry: Because the commission is focusing on the arts, history, culture, and customs, we look for programming that can support that. We’ve been able to work with the historical marker division, with the goal of getting historical markers for the eight tribes in our state. We've been on calls with the Arts Council to find out about opportunities for collaboration and ways we can increase visibility for American Indian artists. We're also working with state archaeologists on the reinterment of Native human remains that the Office of State Archaeology has in its possession.
Quinn: One of our commissioners is doing research on Indian schools in North Carolina—one of which is the East Carolina Indian School, in Clinton. It has a really, really rich history. The origins of the school are very similar to those of the Croatan Normal School (which became the Indian Normal School, and is known now as UNC-Pembroke), in that it was created for Indians, specifically Coharie tribal members. Unlike the Normal School, however, which was set up for students in Robeson County, the school in Clinton also served Native American students from several surrounding counties. Those Indian kids who attended the school would stay with Coharie families during the week, and if they were able to get back home, they would live in their tribal communities on the weekends. The structure was a lot like boarding schools in other parts of the country.
Kerry: The African American Heritage Commission has created educational lesson plans and modules that honor Black History Month. We'd like to create something similar for American Indian Heritage Month by working with UNC-CH’s Carolina K-12 program. Our overall goal is to be a conduit to some of the resources that exist, and develop more.
Kyesha: I would love to hear the thoughts either of you has on the validity or impact of land acknowledgment: acknowledging in print and public discourse the tribal right to the land one occupies. Most people have little guidance in terms of how to accurately state an acknowledgment. Some questions that come to my mind when I hear them being read are: Is it even appropriate if the individual does not know much information besides the sentences they're reading? Besides offering a verbal acknowledgment, what are they doing to support the Native community? Is it respectful? Or necessary?
Kerry: I think they're good. I also think you can't necessarily pinpoint the land that you're walking on to a particular tribe. Some hold the opinion that the purpose of land acknowledgments is to make the listener uncomfortable. And so sometimes land acknowledgments miss this mark and are too sugar-coated. And then, there are those who feel that they don't need to be reminded about past societal ills constantly. But I think as long as they're given respectfully, and truthfully, and the intent is good, they are appropriate, even if we can’t pinpoint exactly whose land we are standing on. But that's why we have kind of a generic land acknowledgment that honors the eight tribes that still exist in North Carolina.
Quinn: I pretty much agree with what Kerry said.
Kyesha: How is that generic acknowledgment worded?
Kerry: Here it is: The state of North Carolina is situated on the ancestral homelands of many American Indian tribes who have lived in this place, cared for these lands, and traveled throughout the region for thousands of years. Tribes spoke different variants of Algonquian, Iroquoian and Siouan languages. We honor them as the first stewards of this place and acknowledge, with sorrow and remorse, the violent history of their dispossession and forced removal.
We respectfully acknowledge the Coharie, Eastern Band of Cherokee, Haliwa-Saponi, Lumbee, Meherrin, Occaneechi Band of the Saponi, Sappony, and Waccamaw Siouan and honor the enduring presence, vibrance, and diversity of contemporary Indigenous communities.
Kyesha Jennings is the content director for the North Carolina Arts Council where as a part of the marketing and communications team, she curates, produces, and develops content that highlights the diversity and vitality of the arts in our state. An award-winning hip-hop scholar, Kyesha is a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania, where her research primarily focuses on Black women writers, hip-hop feminism, and popular culture. Her writing has been published in both academic and non-academic outlets such as LifeHacker, HotNewHipHop, Vulture, Indy Week, CLTure, and Scalawag Magazine.