Memory  /  Longread

The Original Southerners

American Indians, the Civil War, and Confederate memory.

How do American Indians remember and how are they remembered in American history? I begin this work from an understanding of myself as an American Indian—a member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina—and a historian. We are always here, in the South, yet—as Robert E. Lee first thought of Ely S. Parker—folks figure we are also somehow away. That distance is enacted by historical events like the Trail of Tears or the process of writing our existence out of the popular story of the South, which has come to be dominated by the stories of black and white southerners and the twin pillars of the Civil War and civil rights. There are multiple explanations for this invisibility, be they physical removals, legal erasures, systemic obstacles, or commemorative acts that misremember or conflate our stories. These mechanisms to “forget” American Indians are not limited to one or another place within or away from the South, but they show how the South is part of the nation’s ongoing entanglement with colonialism.

That invisibility shaped me from a young age as I absorbed my family’s stories; sometimes they emerged whole, but they mostly came as bits of information, puzzle pieces. They came in pieces not because the story is unknown, but because no one person knows the whole story. Researching and writing American Indian history is made even more interesting amid other southerners’—and Americans’—routine mourning over lost histories and lost causes. Growing up in North Carolina, outside of the Lumbee community but still connected to it, I’ve been conscious that my ancestors were the original southerners, that they were here before something called “the South” ever existed. Yet other Americans, especially southerners, freely mourn and memorialize their histories being lost or erased, all the while challenging our right as Lumbees to do the same. Instead, others look at the history we know perfectly well—if in pieces—and tell us we are not who we say we are, that we don’t have a history, that we are not important to U.S. history. Being left out of the history and the commemoration of the Civil War—one of the most important discussions in the South—is ironic, given that non-Indigenous Americans live on Indigenous land at all times. People like Robert E. Lee are in truth foreigners, even as every colonial government, including the United States, its sundry states, and, at one point, the Confederate States, has challenged the sovereignty of Indigenous nations.