The Land We Occupy
For a person with indigenous roots in the Southeast who is looking for evidence of your homeland, you have to follow invisible maps. The landscape has changed, the surfaces of our histories have been written over: the longleaf pine ecosystem of Creek country’s southern territory reduced from ninety million acres to three million acres in under two centuries; the river valleys of the eighteenth-century Muscogean towns now predominantly underwater as a result of twentieth-century damming practices. When we look at maps of the Southeast, we do not see ourselves, we do not see our memories of place.
~ Jennifer Elise Foerster
These past several months some of us on staff have been researching the indigenous people whose lands we now occupy as Durham, so that we might all know whose lands we ultimately occupy as the Eno River Unitarian Universalist Fellowship.
Such research is called for as part of an Action of Immediate Witness (AIW), which was overwhelmingly passed by congregational delegates during the 2020 Unitarian Universalist Association’s General Assembly (GA),which was the 400th year since the arrival of the Mayflower and the English invasion of Wampanoag territory.
I have been struck by the silly assumptions I’ve made while doing this research. For instance, the look of various maps that depict Indian tribes during a certain period. “Where’s North Carolina?” I found myself wondering a few times, furrowing my brow for at least the shape of it as I scanned the land mass we now call the United States. I was searching for tribal names I found on https://native-land.ca/ the go-to website for locating the traditional native territory you’re presently living on.
“Oh. Yeah.There’s no North Carolina -- not even its outline,” my inner voice replied one day, as I winced a little self-consciously while studying a map depicting colorful, overlapping shapes seeming to move in all directions as though to acknowledge people who were in relationship with one another and the land they were on, rather than as people who were owners. Or settler-colonizers.
My colonized mind.
The UUA’s Action of Immediate Witness calls for congregations to “Research, identify, and acknowledge the Indigenous peoples historically and/or currently connected with the land occupied by congregations, and find ways to act in solidarity with or even partner with those Indigenous peoples.”
We’ve learned that we occupy the traditional territories of several Indigenous peoples, including the Eno, Shakori, Sissipahaw, Saponi, and Lumbee. The first three of these groups eventually joined other larger communities as a matter of survival. Descendants of the Saponi and Lumbee still exist in the area now known as North Carolina.
We begin with the land. We emerge from the earth of our mother, and our bodies will be returned to earth. We are the land. We cannot own it, no matter any proclamation by paper state. We are literally the land, a planet. Our spirits inhabit this place. We are not the only ones. We are creators of this place with each other. ~ Joy Harjo, United States Poet Laureate*
ERUUF’s official acknowledgement of the land we occupy can now be found HERE on our website.
*Harjo, the first Native American to be named US Poet Laureate, is a member of the Muscogee Nation (Este Mvskokvlke) and belongs to Oce Vpofv (Hickory Ground).