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Tom Ross Publishes New Book on N.C. Indians

January 1, 2000

In the most comprehensive work on the subject to date, UNC Pembroke geography Professor Tom Ross unravels the mysteries surrounding North Carolina's Indians.

"American Indians in North Carolina: Geographic Interpretations" (Karo Hallow Press, Southern Pines, 1999) is an important work for a variety of audiences for a number of reasons.

For the scattered and often misunderstood tribes themselves, Dr. Ross' book is the most complete work written about them. As Lumbee Indian and UNC Pembroke's Chancellor Joseph B. Oxendine states in the prologue, "It surely makes a unique contribution to our understanding of North Carolina Indians, past and present."

With more than 100 charts, tables, maps, graphs and illustrations, the 242-page text chronicles Indian life in North Carolina from prehistory to the present. It provides a solidly grounded discussion of the mystery of their identity as well.

"American Indians in North Carolina" shatters myths on all sides of the puzzle of the how these unique and scattered tribes survived the onslaught of U.S. history. Dr. Ross refers to them as "Phoenix Indians" because of their apparent resurgence in the late 20th century.

From a population of approximately 50,000 Indians in North Carolina at the time of European contact, only 1,516 American Indians could be found in the 1890 census. But in 1990, the census lists more than 80,000, and Dr. Ross estimates that by the turn of the next century that number of Native Americans in North Carolina will exceed 100,000, with almost half living in Robeson County alone.

In separate chapters, Dr. Ross discusses each major tribe as well as other groups. The tribes include the only federally recognized tribe is the Eastern Band of Cherokee, located in the mountains of North Carolina.The state recognized tribes are the Lumbee of Robeson County, the Coharie of Sampson County, the Waccamaw-Siouan of Columbus County, the Haliwa-Saponi of Halifax County, the Meherrin of Bertie County and the Indians of Person County.

For all residents of Southeastern North Carolina, which contains the largest concentration of American Indians in the state, "American Indians in North Carolina" is an important book for understanding how these tribes survived and, ultimately, thrived in our midst.

The rise to political and economic power of the Lumbee Indians of Robeson County in modern times is far better known than the mystery of their origins. Dr. Ross provides a thorough review of all theories on the origins of the Lumbee and other tribes.

The future for the state's Indians, Dr. Ross maintains, is far less clouded than the story of their origins, Dr. Ross points out.

"It is clear that the Indians in North Carolina today are not the same Indians (culturally or genically) that were here at the time of European contact. At one point in history, it was thought that the Indians in the United States would be assimilated into other populations, white or black. But 100 years later, they were back from the ashes, Phoenix-like, and demanding recognition as Indians...as the more affluent and better educated Indians, (they) will develop a distinct, new Indian culture that reflects the changing times."

For North Carolinians, this book an important historical treatment of the state's original inhabitants. Dr. Ross deftly explains why these tribes have lost their language and culture, but not their identity as Indians.

Surprisingly, the Tar Heel state contains the seventh largest Indian population in the nation and the largest tribe (Lumbee) east of the Mississippi, despite having only one reservation.

Dr. Ross explains the movement to obtain federal recognition and the larger significance of recognition efforts. Writing from the historic home of the Lumbee Tribe at UNC Pembroke gives the author special insight into the cultural significance of federal recognition.

In these days of heightened cultural awareness, "American Indians in North Carolina" offers inquisitive readers the understanding needed to navigate the global village of the 21st century. Like the Phoenix, North Carolina's Indians are uprising in ways that demand our understanding.

"‘American Indians of North Carolina' provides a focus on Eastern U.S. Indians," Dr. Oxendine says, that other texts ignore.

"Most books on American Indians during recent years have failed to focus on the modern day Indian but have described conditions in an earlier time... Such books tend to ‘set' the Indian in earlier times, reinforcing the concept that they are reservation bound or that they live in the Southwest or Plains regions of the United States."

The story of Indians in North Carolina is a remarkable story of survival in a hostile environment, and in Dr. Ross' hands, it is a valuable resource for any reader.

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Dr. Thomas E. Ross is chairman of the Geography and Geology Department of UNCP, where he has taught since 1969. A native of West Virginia, he received his B.A. and M.S. from Marshall University and Ph.D. from the University of Tennessee. The book may be ordered for $29.95 (which includes sales tax and postage) by writing Karo Hallow Press; P.O. Box 1942; Southern Pines, N.C. 28388