Senora Lynch squeezes 10 sheets of wet corn husk between her fingers, 10 strands of black yarn pressed in the middle. She ties the bundle at the top with a piece of string, spreads the husks apart one by one like wings, and folds them up and over. The yarn hangs down from the center.
“Tie them tight,” she tells a group of students. “If you don’t tie them tight, it’ll all fall apart.”
It’s a Tuesday night meeting of the Carolina Indian Circle, UNC’s student group for Native students and allies, and Lynch is demonstrating how to make corn shuck dolls.
Once everyone has gathered their supplies, Lynch says a prayer in Siouan, the native language of the Haliwa-Saponi tribe, asking the Creator to give us everything we need—nothing extra or special.
“You all are warriors,” she tells the students. “I know how hard it can be to be Native in a place like this. When I went to school, people used to pull my hair and say, ‘Oh, you think you’re Indian, huh?’”
Several of the students are from the same tribe as “Ms. Senora.” And for those who aren’t, she’s still an inspiration. The walkway between the two buildings of the Frank Porter Graham Student Union is an encompassing art plaza called The Gift.
It’s a central meeting place on campus. Lynch, now 58, designed the expansive mosaic back in 2004.
Lynch, who now lives in Warrenton, grew up near Hollister, North Carolina. Her mother raised seven children on Mills Road—a gravel drive connecting grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins who all lived and worked together.
The family fed themselves by vegetable farming and cultivating and curing tobacco. When gathering corn together, Lynch’s mother often told her daughter stories of making dolls out of corn shuck. When she was 12, Lynch asked her mother how to make them.
“That was one of the first art or crafts, you could say, that I started learning with my hands,” she says.
Soon after, while everyone else worked and played in the fields, Lynch began going to her grandfather James Mills’s home to help him weave baskets and chair bottoms out of split cane, white oak, and elm bark.
Mills was one of the original councilmen of the Haliwa-Saponi. In the early 1950s, he held the first recorded tribal meeting on his front porch. Before that, tribal meetings were held in secret.
“In North Carolina, you were not allowed to say you were Indian,” Lynch says, referring to “the Plecker Law,” officially called the Racial Integrity Act of 1924, which made it illegal for anyone to identify themselves on birth or marriage certificates as anything besides “white, colored, or mixed.”
“Our people would write ‘Indian’ on their documents, but they were scribbled out and erased,” Lynch says, sitting in her kitchen among tools and scraps of clay. “After the Indian Removal Act [of 1830], they didn’t want any tribes to gather together. You couldn’t socialize, you really couldn’t dance. People kind of hid away in the woods and they held on to our Native culture by knowing the land and knowing where the water sources were.”
This went on for over a century. It wasn’t until 1965, two years after Lynch was born, that the Haliwa-Saponi received official tribal recognition from North Carolina. The tribe reclaimed their fishing and hunting rights. “People started dancing and dressing in our regalias again.”
In the years that Lynch helped her grandfather weave, she also learned to do beadwork and make pottery.
“I was one of those children that just always picked up on doing things with my hands,” she says.
In high school, Lynch began to sketch and draw and excelled in art classes.
“All the Native students got picked on,” she says. “Teachers were disrespectful to our culture, our histories.”
One day her history teacher told the entire class, “Any student absent tomorrow is going to get an E” (a failing grade). This was no accident: the next day was “Pow-wow Friday,” a ceremonial day that most Native students planned to attend. Hearing the teacher’s threat to fail students out of the class for missing one day, Senora stood up and said, “Give me an E.”
Years after she graduated, Lynch started teaching fellow Natives around North Carolina, passing down the skills of beadwork, basket weaving, doll making, and pottery that she learned from her family and tribe.
Emily Grant was the Youth and Family Programs Coordinator for 30 years at the North Carolina Museum of History. In 1992, Grant was new to her job, looking for programming that highlighted communities specific to North Carolina.
Someone told her what a marvelous beadworker Lynch was, so Grant reached out to see if Lynch would do a public demonstration and teach people about Haliwa-Saponi culture. That was Lynch’s first time teaching outside of Native circles, or being inside a museum.
All weekend, Senora sat at a booth in the main hallway, her daughter Qua, then a toddler, playing at her feet. Visitors sat at her table, watched her work and asked her questions as she worked on a black velvet purse, stringing a dogwood pattern with pink, red, and white beads.
The dogwood flower is iconic to the Haliwa-Saponi tribe, whose annual pow-wow is called “The Blooming of the Dogwood.” The flower is a central image in her work—along with turtles, which represent the earth. Many tribes refer to the Americas as “Turtle Island.”
Shortly after the beadwork demonstration, Grant found out about her pottery and Lynch began teaching clay-working classes at the museum. More teaching gigs followed, and her reach across North Carolina grew. Nowadays, Lynch has run a circuit through schools across the state for over two decades, leaving a trail of turtles in her wake.
“The images that she uses—the turtle and the dogwood and pine and all these symbols that you find in nature where her people are from in North Carolina—it’s just so familiar and recognizable,” says Grant. “And yet, you know it’s Senora’s when you see it.”
By 1996, word about Senora Lynch’s pottery made it to the Smithsonian. The institute featured some of her pieces at the Olympic Games in Atlanta. Her clay piece Grandmother’s Slippers is still on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.
In 2004, UNC-Chapel Hill renovated the Student Union. Administrators wanted a part of the building to represent Indigenous people, so they brought Lynch to the construction site. Looking down at the big hole in the ground, an image flashed through her mind of a patterned walkway between the two buildings.
Back home, she sketched out the design on graph paper, the same way she plans her beadwork. But instead of beads, she imagined bricks: white, red, and brown.
The swirling lines of white bricks alongside the walkway represent water. Rounder, undulating lines along one of the buildings represent the hills of North Carolina: a reminder that the earth will supply you with everything you need.
In the middle giant turtles swim with dogwood flowers on their backs. In the very center, the Eagle Shield grants the gift of protection to all students. Arrows shoot out from the center, signifying direction and determination to “guide you along your path through life.”
At the west end of the mosaic, an ear of corn represents the gift of abundance, while at the east end, the Medicine Wheel signifies the gift of unity among all people.
Though the symbols come from Haliwa-Saponi tradition, The Gift was designed to be inclusive to everyone.
“If people [understand] what the designs mean, then they’ll know that they’re part of it, no matter where they come from, no matter who you are,” Lynch says. “Corn may not have ever been in your cultural diet. But when we see that it represents the seed, it symbolizes the future, it symbolizes preserving and preparing and being ready, then you can understand how that corn relates to you.”
Back at the Tuesday night meeting of the Carolina Indian Circle, students have been ripping, folding, weaving, and tying the corn shucks for an hour. The bundles begin to take the shapes of people.
Students slip buckeyes into the heads for good luck and fashion skirts and other clothes around the torsos. Everyone poses for a group photo with their dolls.
“She walks in beauty wherever she goes,” Grant says of Lynch. “I don’t know anyone who doesn’t feel better after being in her presence.”
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