I was born in Robeson County, the largest county within North Carolina where everyone knows everyone, and poverty is the face of most households. I am a proud member of the largest state-recognized tribe East of the Mississippi River, The Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina. Over 55,000 Lumbee Indians reside in Robeson, Scotland, Hoke, and Cumberland counties. We are the people of the dark water with our tribal name Lumbee being derived from the Lumber River. This river serves as a historical, cultural, and spiritual symbol for tribal members. Our culture is deeply rooted around family, food, religion, and education. To this day we are still fighting to overturn a 60 year ruling from Congress “The Lumbee Act” which acknowledges we are Indians. However, we do not receive any federal benefits of federally recognized tribes. My ancestors saw a need to empower our tribe, so they began to fight for equality for Native Americans in the South at a time when Native Americans could not attend state-funded Universities. After petitioning to their state representative Hamilton McMillan in 1887, Croatan Normal School was established to train Native American teachers. Today, I am a proud alumnus of UNC-Pembroke which began as the Croatan Normal School from the blood, sweat, and tears of my ancestors.
I was born with a fighting spirit. To be born in the south as Native American Female, one has to know how to stand her ground. Once I came out as a lesbian in 2008 I knew I’d have to fight even harder to be a voice for those who couldn’t fight for themselves. Within our tribe religion is a huge component within our upbringing. Often times you grew up within a community centered around what church your ancestors helped established. The Lumbee religious affiliations are predominantly Southern Baptist and Methodist with more churches within our tribal lands than schools. I grew up in a home of a Southern Baptist Minister. I was the epitome of a Preacher’s daughter doing whatever I could to try and escape the confines of such label. When I came out to my parents I wasn’t received with open arms. I heard the usual response of how I was living a life of sin and I’d be going to hell. They kicked me out for a bit as they processed through their feelings. At 22 years old, I was at a low point in my life but refused to live a lie. Within our tribe you didn’t hear of many LGBT men and woman coming out, often times they lived their lives in secret. This had so much to do with our culture not being acceptive of LGBT tribal members based on religious beliefs. In my coming out I wanted to show people that I was still the same Courtney they knew yesterday; the only difference was that I was being who I really was not someone who people thought I should be. I was also very fortunate to have a friend circle and some family who stood by me during my coming out period. Having them made this milestone in my life easier to navigate.
Now, fast forward 11 years, that fighting spirit still exists and I’ve harnessed my power in ways I would have never imagined. I’ve grown as an LGBT Native woman in the sense that I can share my story of coming out with those who find themselves in my shoes 11 years ago. I have made peace with the fact that not everyone will agree with my life, and that’s ok because at the end of the day my happiness is what matters. I am proud to say that with the time that has passed my family has accepted me as a lesbian as well as my partner. We celebrated our marriage this past October surrounded by our family and friends here in Charleston. I feel that our wedding served as a beacon of hope for LGBT Lumbee back home who are afraid to be who they really are. I hope that they can find the strength in my story and gather the courage to break the homophobic stigma within our tribe surrounding our LGBT community. On our wedding day, I was gifted a traditional Lumbee Shawl from a dear friend. This rainbow-colored prayer shawl was handmade by his mother a strong-willed Lumbee elder. Each tie within the shawl represents a prayer and a blessing for a long healthy life and marriage. This shawl to me represents a bridge of change and acceptance from Lumbee elders who realize Love is Love.
As a Native American LGBT woman, I still struggle here in the South. I struggle with the fact that I have to defend my Native American identity to those who seem to think being Native Americans should look a certain way. I struggle with those who do not think Native Americans exist anymore. This is just one side to my coin. On the other side, I’m a lesbian in a biracial marriage living in the deep South. I will be the first to admit it is hard to find my place amongst the LGBT community. I didn’t have prominent LGBT figures who looked like I did that I could relate to. I didn’t have an LGBT community of support in my tribe in rural North Carolina that I could belong to. Even without these things, I feel like I used my fighting power within me to not become a statistic of suicide like so many other LGBT Natives. With the struggles I face also comes the power to make a change in the world that surrounds me. I’m here to let others know it does and will get better. By making an impact as an LGBT Native American I can be the support system for those who find themselves struggling with coming out or even accepting themselves for who they really are.
Words By: Courtney Chavis