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By Kaley Beins
Today some parts of the U.S. celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day to honor the history and culture of indigenous people in the Americas, while recognizing and protesting the extreme violence that these people faced from Columbus and other Europeans. Yet simple recognition of past wrongs does little for the many Native American tribes, nations, and people who still face intense socioeconomic and health disparities. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that Native Americans may face higher risks of obesity and that heart disease is the leading cause of death in Native Americans in the U.S. This has been attributed in part to the Indian Removal Act of 1830 and the accompanying food rations of flour and lard. These rations led to fried food becoming “cultural foods” for many Native Americans, thereby institutionalizing poor nutrition and health problems. Additionally, many areas where Native Americans currently live are food deserts, or places where the population is low-income and has to travel more than 10 miles to a grocery store.
One such food desert includes Robeson and Hoke counties in rural Southeastern North Carolina. These counties are home to the Lumbee Tribe, the 55,000 descendants of the Cheraw Tribe that migrated from southern Virginia to the Carolinas in the early 1700s. Although recognized by North Carolina and the United States Congress as being “Indian,” the Lumbee are not officially federally recognized as a tribe and therefore are ineligible for any federal benefits. As they continue to fight for federal recognition, the Lumbee have worked among themselves and their own government to maintain their heritage and address problems within their communities. One problem they face is a lack of nutrition, which has caused high levels of obesity, diabetes, and cardiac problems among the Lumbee.
North Carolina’s most recent Health and Human Services budget allots $1.24 million of a federal Preventative Health Services Block Grant to the Physical Activity and Nutrition Program, yet it is unclear how effective such programs will be as almost 20% of North Carolinians do not have access to healthy foods and produce. As Mac Legerton, co-founder of the Center for Community Action in Lumberton (CAC), puts it, “Southeastern North Carolina is host to 4 counties of persistent poverty including Robeson and Hoke County and poverty is one of the major determinants of people’s health…While there are limited state and national resources, most communities are going to primarily have to rely on building sustainable economies from the ground up.” The CAC focuses on what it calls “the 5 E’s of sustainability: education, economy, environment, equity, and energy.” Part of their sustainability work includes “creat[/fusion_builder_column][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][ing] a food system that focused on poverty reduction and alleviation and bas[ing] it on support for limited resource farmers.” In an effort to work with grassroots organizations and limited resource farmers, Mac works with Hoke County’s Hawkeye Indian Cultural Center (HICC).
The HICC works to “strengthen families, unite people through cultural enrichment and enhance the self-sufficiency of underserved and distressed communities, particularly among Native Americans in Hoke and surrounding counties.” I had the opportunity to speak with Gwen Locklear, cofounder and current Vice-Chairman of the HICC about her work, especially the HICC’s 2-acre organic farm and their Sustainable Lifeways Initiative . Gwen’s family has been connected to the HICC land for over 100 years; in the late 1800’s her grandparents were sharecroppers on what is now the organic farm. Recognizing the discrimination and racial tension in the schools as well as the other problems their community faced, Gwen and other leaders of the Hoke County Native American community created the nonprofit HICC in 1997 to “provide services to the local Indian people and manage services at the regional, state and national level.” As Gwen puts it, “Sometimes, when you go and advocate on a board it doesn’t change things, so we thought we’d do it ourselves and apply for our own funding.”
On their 2-acre organic farm, Hawkeye Indian Cultural Center grows seasonal produce, which they sell to locals and distribute to soup kitchens and food banks. Gwen explains this generosity in two ways: “We educate people on how to eat healthy; we want to lift them up out of health issues that their grandparents might have today,” and “We not only serve Native Americans; we serve all groups. We just want to do what we can…that’s what we’re about: helping others.”
In addition to their work supporting the low-income communities of Hoke County, one of the HICC’s most impactful programs specifically targets the Lumbee in all of Southeastern North Carolina. The Sustainable Lifeways Initiative uses the grant money from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families and Administration for Native Americans to address health issues, promote economic growth, and continue cultural education programs. Gwen explains, “We wanted to do some positive things in the communities for our kids; we wanted to develop a place of hope…our own place we can be in fellowship together.” The health portion of this project is about the health of the whole person. “Going back to where we came from was basically going back to the earth,” Gwen says.
As the North Carolina Legislature struggles to address issues of poverty, health, and nutrition, this small farm and cultural center in rural Hoke County works tirelessly to support its people. Gwen emphasizes the mission of the Sustainable Lifeways Initiative and the Hawkeye Community Center. It “teach[es] you to be a survivor and be sustainable in life itself. It includes education, and it includes you as a human being.”
For more information about Hawkeye Indian Cultural Center please click here.
The Center for Community Action in Lumberton is “one of the oldest multiracial social justice organizations in the entire South and has been engaged in environmental justice for over 30 years.” For more information about the Center for Community Action or about Mac’s new work regarding eco-ministry please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 910-736-5573.