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Bringing Native Americans together in Charlotte: The power of 'Talking Circles’ in urban areas

Dancers in native outfits
Queens University News Service
Sam Carnes
Dance/Drum Event Organized by Metrolina Native American Association.

As the holiday season continues, a Charlotte social worker sees emerging traces of hope for the 70% of Native Americans who live in urban areas — including 22,000 in Mecklenburg County.

Tonia Jacobs Deese leads “Talking Circles” coordinated by the Metrolina Native American Association. Scheduled monthly in libraries, the circles offer a safe space for 12 to 15 people to talk through their grief, pain and challenges.

More Native Americans live in North Carolina than any state east of the Mississippi River — more than 130,000, according to the 2020 U.S. Census. This year they’re dealing not only with an issue common among all urban Indians — lack of access to the cultural, health and educational resources of their tribal lands — but with two remnants from COVID.

“It took out a lot of our elders in particular, which is a devastating loss to us because of the culture and history and the knowledge and the wisdom that goes with them,” said Deese. “The sense of community also took a hit during and after the pandemic, because everything was virtual.” Bringing people back together in person has been a struggle, she said, but it’s getting better.

Deese gives credit to the programming of the Metrolina association, which supports Native Americans in the Charlotte area. Elsewhere in North Carolina, three similar urban Native American organizations support Fayetteville, Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill, and Greensboro. Seventy percent of Native Americans live in urban areas, and that population is growing.

Focus on Events and Partnerships

As executive director of the Metrolina association, Rebecca LaClaire is focused on building partnerships, working with government agencies and scheduling events. She meets regularly with elected officials, nonprofits and companies; schedules inter-tribal and holiday events and golf tournaments; and creates ways to advocate for and increase the visibility of Native Americans. On Nov. 20, the association organized a cultural showcase before a Charlotte Hornets basketball game, featuring dancers and drummers from North Carolina tribes.

LaClaire is a member of the Lumbee Tribe, the largest Native American tribe in North Carolina, and the largest tribe east of the Mississippi.

Rebecca LaClaire smiling
Queens University
News Service
Rebecca LaClaire, executive director of the Metrolina Native American Association.

Correcting myths is a big part of her job. Recognizing the difference between state tribes and federally recognized tribes helps with one of the biggest misunderstandings, LaClaire said. The only federally recognized tribes in the Carolinas are the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and the Catawba Indian Nation.

In addition to the Eastern Band of Cherokee, the state of North Carolina recognizes seven tribal nations. They are the Coharie, Haliwa-Saponi, Sappony, Waccamaw Siouan, Meherrin, Lumbee, and the Occaneechie Band of the Saponi Nation. These seven do not receive federal benefits in health care, education, housing and financial support.

“If you’re not Eastern Band, and if you’re not Catawba, you’re not receiving those benefits,” she said. “The assumption is that everybody’s receiving a monthly check because they got to have a casino. That’s probably one of the things that hurts other Native Americans. Because people just don’t realize how the federal government has made us either beg for federal recognition or beg for grants. So if you’re not federally recognized and you don’t have the casino, you’re just a regular state-recognized tribe who is literally just working, working hard to be able to reach people.”

LaClaire grew up in Hoke County, where her mother was regularly involved with Native American issues and organizations. She often drove Rebecca and her brother and sister to Lumbee gatherings in Baltimore, a city where tribe membersfrequently migrated in the 1950s and 1960s.

LaClaire’s brother is now on the Lumbee Tribal Council, and in mid-November advocated for the tribe during a contentious dispute over membership status at the National Congress of American Indians. Her sister lives in Massachusetts, where she is married to a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe.

Addressing Intergenerational Trauma

A 2007 reportfrom the Urban Indian Health Commission indicated Native Americans suffered disproportionately from depression, substance abuse, coronary heart disease and diabetes. Unfortunately, those statistics still ring true almost two decades later, Deese said. The causes are complex, she explained, but include poverty and the stress of poverty, food insecurity, lack of access to health care and lack of access to healthy food.

“There's been a whole lot of trauma,” Deese said. “Intergenerational trauma, historical trauma from the boarding school era, from being pushed onto reservations, lack of access to our culture, that culture being stripped away from us. That has had many, many ripple effects for generations of American Indian people. They tend to turn to food or substances to cope with those things.”

Tonia Deese looking at camera
Courtesy Deese
Tonia Jacobs Deese, clinical social worker.

Within the last five years, Deese said urban Native American organizations are doing a better job of examining issues and developing ways to address them. Initiatives include support groups like Talking Circles; celebrations and gatherings; programming focused on diet, exercise, addiction; identifying mental health resources; and working with health insurance organizations and nonprofits.

LaClaire and Deese cite examples from their own families. LaClaire’s daughter is the only Native American in her school. But if she were attending school in the Lumbee community, LaClaire said there would be 25 other Native Americans in her classroom.

Deese is a member of the Waccamaw Siouan Tribe, her husband is Lumbee, and they also have a young daughter.

“We’re just trying to rebuild and strengthen the community so that we’re there for each other,” Deese said. “Because if I were back home, I would see my aunties and uncles and cousins and elders, and every day, if I needed anything, they would be there as soon as that need was there.”

Casey Osiecki is a student in the James L. Knight School of Communication at Queens University of Charlotte, which offers the news service in support of local community news.

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