Natha Littlecrow, a member of the Otoe-Missouria Tribe of Oklahoma, at the Coharie Pow Wow in Sampson County in September. Photo by Ben Brown

Before there was a United States, what is now North Carolina was home to indigenous tribes for thousands of years. Their stories, traditions and heartache have gone mostly untaught in our history classrooms, but there’s hope this will change as we continue to embrace our past.

By Billy Liggett

Katie Eddings has taught history in North Carolina public schools for nearly 20 years. She remembers her North Carolina history textbooks — back when students still used actual books — and the painfully small amount of ink given to those who lived here long before the first Spanish and English settlers arrived.

Thousands of years … reduced to a few paragraphs.

“The history of North Carolina that we teach to our children doesn’t do justice to the people who were here long before. It doesn’t represent all of the people here,” says Eddings, a world history and personal finance teacher at Lee Early College in Sanford and a native of the Lumbee Indian tribe in the southeastern part of the state.

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“But I do see things are starting to change. I think younger people are more willing now [to learning history of indigenous people], and I think social media and wider availability to this history has made this possible. People are more open to hearing all sides and having these sometimes difficult discussions.”

In 2021, President Joe Biden signed the first presidential proclamation of Indigenous Peoples Day, a commemoration that actually began in 1977 to honor Native American history. Biden’s move refocused a federal holiday that since 1792 (300 years after his arrival in the Americas) celebrated Spanish explorer Christopher Columbus.

While the proclamation has since sparked controversy — much of it related to the Critical Race Theory debate currently prevalent in the political realm — it has unquestionably shined a light on Native American history and cultures in North Carolina and across the country.   

But Eddings — the 2018 Lee County Schools Teacher of the Year and 2019 Teacher of the Year for the state’s North Central Region — sees the debate as healthy for her students. She believes in presenting all angles in her classroom, letting her students do their research and decide their own viewpoint when it comes to this country’s history.

“I present them with the source material — Columbus’ own words and description of his journey. Then what scholars have written and what groups representing both sides are saying,” Eddings says. “I was asked several years ago, ‘Do you think Christopher Columbus was a bad guy?’ And my answer is, ‘That’s not what I’m teaching.’ His journey, why he took that journey — those are the important things. There are bad things that happened, but let’s look at what we’ve learned from what happened. Let’s talk about things not everybody is aware of.

“A lot of folks, unfortunately, don’t know this history. They don’t know that the Lumbee tribe even exists. So when it comes to history, I want to introduce the other people who are part of North Carolina’s makeup. We’ve talked a lot about the settlers, the Highland Scots and what they brought here. But let’s look at the people who were here first.”

The Coharie Indians are the closest state-recognized tribe to Sanford and Lee County — their headquarters located north of Clinton near the border of Sampson and Harnett counties. The Coharies descend from the aboriginal tribe of the Neusiok Indians. More than 3,000 men and women make up the tribe, with about 80 percent of them residing within tribal communities. The tribe held its annual fall Pow Wow — a celebration of their traditions and culture — in September. Photo by Ben Brown


The history we’ve been taught about North America’s indigenous people often begins in 1492, when Columbus sailed the ocean blue. Columbus was heading west across the Atlantic from Spain hoping to find a western route to “the Orient.” He was not aware two continents stood in the way, and when he reached land, he believed he found India. Hence, he called the people he found “Indios,” translated in English as “Indians.”

Most of what’s been taught about Native Americans comes from the past 500-plus years, because those are the only written records. And what’s been taught has been 100 percent through the eyes and books of outsiders, who found their customs to be strange and “savage.”

Columbus’ arrival would mark the beginning of a slow, brutal genocide of North America’s indigenous people through violence, disease and forced acculturation. Multiple studies have found that in the century following Columbus, about 90 percent of indigenous Americans died from “wave after wave of disease,” along with mass slavery and war (researchers have called it “the great dying”). Scientists from the University College of London claim the European colonization of the Americas resulted in so many deaths it contributed to climate change and temporary global cooling.

This watercolor by English artist John White shows the fortified Indian town of Pomeiock in the Outer Banks region. White visited the town in July 1585, and his paintings from the time became an important source of historical and ethnographic information about both groups. Virginia Indian Archive

The exact origins of human settlement in North America is up for debate, but many archaeologists believe the first humans entered the continent via the Beringia — a massive land bridge that once existed between what is now Russia and Alaska — between 12,000 and 14,000 years ago (recent findings suggest it could have been 30,000-plus years). When these Paleo-Indians arrived, they traveled down the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains and went east to populate the continent.

According to “Native Carolinians: The Indians of North Carolina” by Theda Perdue and Christopher Arris Oakley, there is evidence that Paleo-Indians made it to North Carolina — specifically the Piedmont area — based on evidence of flaked points, axes and grinding stones found in the sites they occupied.

For thousands of years, they enjoyed the large game that roamed the lands here — now extinct species of bison and mammoth — and when they died out, hunters turned to smaller animals, plants and shellfish for survival. Around 1,000 B.C., evidence of agriculture appeared and dramatically changed the way people lived. Communities became more permanent, and villages began forming along rivers and streams. Historians have referred to these groups as the Woodlands Indians, and by the time Europeans arrived, these groups had their own economies and were growing considerable amounts of maize, tobacco, beans and squash.

More than 100,000 Native Americans were believed to be living in what is now North Carolina in 1550. That number would fall to about 20,000 by the 1800s.

Roughly 25 known tribes existed in North Carolina when Europeans arrived, including the Cape Fear near Wilmington, the Chowan and Hatteras along and near the Outer Banks, the Cherokee and Catawba in the west and the Tuscarora, Eno, Shakori, Woccon and Sissipahaw in the Piedmont area.

These tribes were initially friendly and (mostly) willing to trade and assist Europeans like Sir Walter Raleigh, who landed on the barrier islands of what is now North Carolina in 1584. He and his men were met by a group of high-ranking native people, who were fascinated with English clothing, ships and jewelry. Relationships with the English would soon sour. In 1587, a permanent English settlement was established on Roanoke Island. Three years later, when English ships returned with supplies, they found the colony deserted — the word “Croatoan” carved into the palisades and CRO into a nearby tree the only clues left behind.

The story of the “Lost Colony” became the stuff of legend, but also lent to a negative historical image of Native Americans, despite no proof to this day that Croatoan Indians had anything to do with the disappearance. One theory is that the settlers assimilated with the tribes to ensure survival.

In 1663, England’s King Charles II issued a decree for the British Empire to seize all land in North America between the 31st and 36th parallels, an area from the northern border of North Carolina to the southern border of Georgia. Ownership of indigenous people’s lands was bestowed upon English families, and skirmishes erupted as a result.

In 1711, the Tuscarora people in the central part of the state attacked colonial settlements, which were backed by the nearby Yamassee tribe, in an effort to drive them from their lands. Over the next two years, hundreds of settlers, including key colonial political figures, were killed. In 1713, a South Carolina militia (backed by nearly 1,000 Native Americans from other tribes) defeated the Tuscarora, who lost nearly 1,000 people either killed or sold into slavery in the Caribbean. After the defeat, the Tuscarora migrated north to New York, where they joined the Five Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy.

Around that time, the Cherokees in the western part of the state were also forced to give up large portions of their land to American colonists, leading to armed conflicts. When President Andrew Jackson signed the American Removal Act a century later, more than 17,000 Cherokees were forcibly moved from North Carolina to reservations in Oklahoma, part of a network of routes over 5,000 miles long covering nine states known as the Trail of Tears. Historians believe more than 4,000 Cherokee alone died as a result of the journey.

Today, there are eight state-recognized Native American tribes in North Carolina — the Coharie, which established the state’s first school for Indian children in 1859; the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians located in the western part of the state; the Haliwa-Saponi in Warren and Halifax counties, the Meherrin in the northeast, the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation in Orange and Alamance counties; the Waccamaw Siouan in Bladen; and Columbus counties and the largest state tribe, the Lumbee, centered in Robeson County.

The Cherokee are North Carolina’s only federally recognized tribe, though the Lumbee have sought federal recognition for several years.

North Carolina is now home to the largest American Indian population east of the Mississippi River and the eighth-largest overall population in the U.S. In 2000, the U.S. Census reported 99,551 Native Americans living in the state, making up roughly 1.25 percent of the population. The number jumps to 130,000 when including American Indian in combination with other races.

The eight recognized tribes came together with the General Assembly to form the N.C. Commission of Indian Affairs in 1971, creating a unified group consisting of 21 representatives (some appointed by the state). The Commission serves as a voice in Raleigh, fighting for everything from more funding to the elimination of offensive Indian mascots from high schools.

Greg Jacobs, tribal administrator and elder for the Coharie, was a young man in the tribe’s board of directors back in ’71 when the commission was formed, and 50 years later, he says it has done wonders for the entire American Indian community in the state.

“You’re speaking to a strong advocate for the Commission,” Jacobs says. “That voice at the state level has opened up — I can’t count how many — doors not only for our group, but for all of us. There’s been an explosion of visibility and resources coming in that help our local communities overcome disadvantages of inequality and exclusion.

“For so many years, we’ve been overlooked. I feel like we’re continuing to grow and becoming a louder voice. And this visibility is helping build stronger communities.”

The Little Coharie River, near where it meets Sinclair Lake south of Spivey’s Corner, is an important natural resource for the Coharie community near the Sampson-Harnett county line. In 2015, the Coharie Tribe launched the Great Coharie River Initiative to keep the river clean and environmentally sound, with a goal of making the 13-mile stretch of water accessible for public use — “a beautiful gift to all people.” Photo by Billy Liggett


There’s a small painting behind Jacob’s desk in his office at the Coharie Tribe headquarters — housed in an old Coharie school building just south of the Harnett-Sampson county line; his office in the same room as Jacobs’ third-grade class 60-plus years ago.

The red and black painting shows a young woman in a small canoe, floating along the river surrounded by the silhouette of trees, heading toward a yellow sunset and a dark red sky.

“I’ll tell you about that river,” says Jacobs. “This was painted by a young woman who had a special connection with that river. She turned down going to a Lumbee pow wow that her boyfriend was the head dancer at so she could go to this river. She said her heart had been really heavy, and there were burdens and other things that she just needed to figure out.

“The river, she said, was a place she could go and lay those burdens down on the currents of the water. The currents send those burdens away and bring her peace. This painting represented that.”

That little girl was Jacobs’ granddaughter. And that tranquil stretch of water was the Little Coharie River — which runs along U.S. 421 in the Coharie community before meeting the Black River to the south and much later the Cape Fear before it hits Wilmington. Keeping the river clean and pure is an important responsibility taken on by the Coharie, which formed the Great Coharie River Initiative in 2015 with a goal of making the 13-mile stretch of water accessible for public use — “a beautiful gift to all people.”

The current Coharie Tribe — made up of more than 3,000 members — is the closest state-recognized tribe to the Lee County area. The Coharie, descendants of the aboriginal tribe of the Neusiok Indians near the Neuse River, settled to their present location in the mid 1700s. In the 1800s, the tribe built a political base in Sampson County, which allowed them to open a small “subscription school” for Coharie children in 1859. In 1911, the state gave the Coharies their own school system, and in 1943, it became the East Carolina Indian School, serving tribal members from several surrounding counties.

The Coharie Tribe today remains visible through not only its environmental efforts and involvement in the N.C. Commission of Indian Affairs, but also through its annual Pow Wow, an open-to-the-public display of customs and traditions held every September for the past 52 years.

A group of women perform traditional dances at the Coharie Tribe Pow Wow in September. Photo by Ben Brown

The Lumbee are the most visible tribe in the central and eastern parts of the state, with tribal territory in Robeson, Scotland, Hoke and nearby Cumberland counties. Today, there are more than 55,000 members of the Lumbee Tribe, making them the largest tribe east of the Mississippi and the ninth-largest tribe in the nation.

As for the tribes who settled and built their villages on the land that now makes up Sanford and Lee County, there is no one tribe that currently “represents” this area. But a strong Native American presence in our area is undeniable.

“When you look at Sanford, you’re only getting the white European version of this area’s history,” says Eddings, who moved to Sanford in 2015. “I’ve done my own research and understand the Algonquin people [more prevalent in the Outer Banks] had a presence here, as well as the Siouan [from the southern part of the state]. But there’s not a whole lot out there about our area.”

Arrowheads, tools and pottery have all been found in Lee County along the Cape Fear and Deep rivers. The Railroad House Museum in downtown Sanford has a small display of Native American artifacts found in this area and donated.

The Carolina Trace community states online: “Carolina Trace was once home to buffalo and the Native Americans who hunted them. Their arrowheads and other artifacts ‘trace’ the story of a simple past.”

A canoe or kayak trek through the Deep River will send one through areas “once home to Native American fish traps,” according to Endor Paddle.

A Canadian company released a Google Maps-inspired tool called recently that allows visitors to learn which native tribes once inhabited their cities, towns or even neighborhoods. A search of Sanford and Lee County labels the area as part of a large swath of land inhabited by the Tuscarora Indians, as well as some Lumbee and Catawba presence. To the north, the Sissipawhaw and the Shakori were prevalent near Pittsboro, Chapel Hill and the surrounding areas.

The Tuscarora were among the most written-about by European colonists in the 17th and 18th centuries, and the Tuscarora War between 1711-1713 led to their eventual migration north to New York. Those who stayed behind intermarried with other local tribes, and many Native Americans in the state today are believed to have descended from the Tuscarora.

Though not a state-recognized tribe, the Tuscarora of North Carolina celebrate their annual Pow Wow in Maxton (near Laurinburg) every year. The Tuscarora were noted for their use of indigenous hemp for fiber and medicine, their expertise as hunters and their ability to cultivate corn.

At their peak, the tribe’s population was somewhere between 5,000 and 6,000 people.


On Jan. 18, 1958, the Ku Klux Klan were planning to hold a rally in a rural field near the North Carolina town of Maxton, between the towns of Laurinburg and Pembroke. The rally was public knowledge, and the town’s mayor — who was also police chief — had sought help from state police and the FBI asking for help to prevent what he saw as inevitable.

What happened next would become an important moment in North Carolina’s Native American history. As told by historians at UNC Pembroke, the announced rally had drawn “excitement” from the area’s Indian and Black communities. “Many women pleaded with their husbands, brothers, and fathers to stay at home and out of harm’s way. But the Klan had gone too far. Recent cross-burnings in St. Pauls and other nearby communities had made it clear that the Klan meant business.”

Nearly 1,000 members of the Lumbee Tribe and other Native American groups, many of them armed, joined a large group of Black men and confronted the group of Klansmen at the rally. Heated words were exchanged, shots were fired, and the Klansmen fled, “abandoning a fallen flag, cross and other items.” A few minor injuries, but nobody was killed in the exchange.

Katie Eddings, a native Lumbee Indian, teaches world history and personal finance at Lee Early College in Sanford. Photo: Twitter

The event made national headlines. LIFE Magazine wrote about it. Newspapers celebrated those brave enough to stand up to hatred.

Surprisingly — or, perhaps, not surprisingly — the “Battle of Hayes Pond,” isn’t an event taught often in North Carolina history classes.

“A lot of folks just don’t want to hear it,” says Eddings. “Our current lieutenant governor doesn’t want to hear it. There’s a teacher friend of mine on his ‘watch list,’ and he’s a middle-aged white guy teaching in Wake County. And he also teaches his students about the Lumbees and Hayes Pond. He knows the importance. He sees the significance. I’m happy there are teachers out there willing to take those risks.”

Eddings took a recent trip to Australia and witnessed Reconciliation, a process that began in 1991 and focused on the improved race relations between that nation’s population and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people indigenous to the land. For those people, Australia’s colonial history was characterized by “devastating land dispossession, violence and racism.” The last 30-plus years have focused on the country “owning up” to that past.

“They have acknowledged their history and embraced it,” Eddings says. “Do we need Americans today to to apologize for what the colonists did? No. But they need to acknowledge that I have a language, I have these traditions and I have this history that is real to me. Teachers should acknowledge their students’ history and bring it into their curriculum in some way.”

Not everybody wants to hear it, Eddings says. She is 61, and she admits that many people her age simply don’t want to have that conversation. The history they learned as children and teens is the only history they know and want to know.

But young people are more willing to listen. And for them, it’s not about hearing just one person’s side of the story — it’s about taking in all sides and forming their own thoughts and opinions moving forward.

“I want you to ask questions,” Eddings told the Associated Press in a May 2022 story, Teachers are reimagining U.S. history with an eye on diversity. “I want you to be curious about why this happened and why that happened. What was the cause and effect, and is there lasting impact now? What happened then? Is there an impact to us now? Are we better off? I just want them to be thinkers.”