The ancient percussion of cicadas rattles in the treetops above Raleigh’s Dorothea Dix Park as Kaya Littleturtle uses golden eagle feathers to gently fan wisps of smoke from a turtle shell. The Lumbee tribe member, adorned in ceremonial floral-stitched regalia, turns in four directions, smudging to the four winds, and the earthy fragrance of tobacco, sage, sweetgrass, and cedar smoke fills the air.
It’s a blistering August morning, and the normally bustling park is all but empty save two tents under which a dozen tribal representatives and city officials sit in socially distanced lawn chairs. The ceremony is low-key out of necessity in the time of pandemic, but it is nonetheless historic: It’s the city’s first native-land-acknowledgment ceremony and one of only a few ever conducted in North Carolina.
The recognition that Indigenous people walked these hills for thousands of years before white colonizers arrived is a reclamation of history necessary for the city to begin the process of reckoning with its white supremacist roots. But it was also a call to action: a promise that the land’s future—which officials hope will be a “park for everyone” after a currently stalled multi-million dollar redevelopment—will celebrate the cultures white settlers attempted to erase.
“The property that Dix Park sits on today was originally land that natives inhabited, either by living there or using that as a place to rest, to hunt, to live off the land,” says Kerry Bird, president of the Triangle Native American Society. “There’s that history of the park itself that has native roots.”
Before Dix was a park, it was the state’s first psychiatric hospital when it was founded in 1856. It housed Native Americans long before it accepted Black people, and several members of the Lumbee Tribe, including Riley Locklear, are buried in unmarked graves in the cemetery. Before that, it was a plantation whose fields were worked by enslaved African Americans.
But ten thousand years ago, it was land that nomadic Indigenous tribes passed through while hunting large game, says historian and City of Raleigh Museum Director Ernest Dollar. While the evidence is sparse and more research is needed, a handful of artifacts—fragments, of tools, weapons—date the earliest Indigenous presence in the area to 8,000 BCE.
“For thousands and thousands of years, Indigenous people roamed Raleigh,” Dollar says. “Our history is a short window compared to this bigger picture.”
By 1,000 BCE, the nomadic tribes began to settle into agricultural communities. It was this rich society explorer John Lawson encountered in 1701, as described in his account, A New Voyage to Carolina. While passing through the town of Occaneechi—what is now Hillsborough—Lawson described ornate cabins hung with tapestries and stocked with bear fat, dried venison, and other lush provisions. He watched people play sports, sing, and feast. The tribe’s chief, Enoe-Will, escorted Lawson south to the Falls of Neuse, which the Occaneechi called “wee quo whom.” There, the two laid all night under the stars discussing spirituality beside the babbling creek.
What we now know as Wake County was a gray area between the territories of several large native communities—the Tuscarora, the Catawba, and the Siouan—each with its own unique culture.
Lawson’s writings were partly blamed for the rapid expansion of white settlers into native lands, and in 1711 he was killed during the onset of the Tuscarora War, the state’s bloodiest known colonial conflict. The war, combined with diseases brought by white settlers, forced thousands of indigenous Tuscarora people to relocate west and join the Iroquois Confederacy near the Great Lakes.
By the time European surveyors returned to the area in 1737, no native communities remained.
“We were a group that was intentionally wiped out and our culture erased, and we’re still here,” says Trey Roberts, a Haliwa-Saponi native who works with Dix Park Conservancy. “We have a culture that’s rich and important and beautiful, and we want to use this opportunity to teach people about it.”
Roberts grew up in Hollister, a small town of predominately Haliwa-Saponi, where he attended tribal classes that celebrated his culture. After moving to Raleigh, he says “it felt like the culture disappeared, and no one really knew about it.”
He was drawn to working with the conservancy because of the idea Dix could be the city’s cultural heartbeat—a place for everyone that celebrates every aspect of the city’s history.
Roberts, who organized Saturday’s event, was nervous before approaching the microphone to kick off the ceremony.
“We stand here today to make a statement that more work needs to be done to unlock the history, the story, and the injustices done to native people in the area, including their displacement and removal,” Roberts said. “This isn’t just a ceremony to recognize or bless the land of Dix Park, but this is the start of an ongoing commitment to celebrating our native culture, because we’re still here.”
That commitment will include an official proclamation from the city, Mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin promised during the ceremony. She attended alongside councilor David Cox and newly appointed councilor Stormie Forte.
“We can’t let that history be hidden,” Baldwin told the INDY. “We have to celebrate it.”
According to the 2010 census, North Carolina is home to about 122,000 Native Americans. Many don’t see their culture reflected around them, Bird said. History books downplay the genocide of the Indigenous people, and the media often reduces their culture to a shallow stereotype.
Because of this, many Native Americans suffer “an invisibility complex,” Bird says. Without traditional attire, many tend to blend into a crowd.
“Our language has changed. Our religion has changed,” Bird said. “We’re involved in politics on both sides of the aisle.”
Combatting that invisibility means voices like Roberts must seize the space to be heard and tell their stories. For the city, it means taking the initiative to “to build real relationships and connections,” says Dix Park communications spokeswoman Lauren Weldishofer. “It’s also how we are going to really make this place somewhere that everyone feels they have a connection to but also that they are welcome and a part of.”
Littleturtle concluded the ceremony with a song of blessing. The earth, air, water, and trees contain medicine, he says. Music, too, he believes, has the power to heal.
He beats a drum like a rapid heartbeat as his voice rings out over the ever-present hiss of cicadas. His eyes close as he sings. The drumbeat slows, but the song continues to burst out of him, from a place deep and raw. The trees sway slightly behind him, and further still, downtown’s metal skyscrapers poke up through the skyline.
“Every single one of us comes from a rich cultural background with our songs, our dances, our languages, our cultural customs, our food,” Littleturtle says in a thick Southern drawl. “I appreciate this respect we’ve shown each other here today.”
Support independent local journalism. Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle.