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UMass professor discusses Native history and his own mixed ancestry

(Jackson Cote/ Daily Collegian)

With 14 people sitting in the warm, wooden-walled room of the Josephine White Eagle Cultural Center (JWECC) — adorned with maps of Native American Nations, photographs and prints of Native American people — Professor Ron Welburn discussed the history of some Chesapeake Native American nations and his own mixed ancestry.

Welburn, a University of Massachusetts professor of English, is of Gingaskin Cherokee, Assateague, Lenape and African American descent. His presentation was titled, “Native American Indian Communities and African Americans: A Brief Living History about the Virginia Eastern Shore and Chesapeake Watershed.”

The presentation was the cultural Center’s last “Native Voices” story-telling circle of the semester. Welburn focused on the histories of Southeastern Native American nations of the Chesapeake Basin, most of which are Algonquian, but some of which are Iroquoian. Other national histories discussed included the Accomacs, Accohannocks, Wicomico, Choptanks, Assateagues, Piscataway, Nanticoke and the Gingaskin.

“We consider ourselves to be guests in this area,” Welburn said, in regard to how the Pioneer Valley lies in historically Pocomtuc Algonquian Territory.

Turning his attention to the various tribes of the Chesapeake Bay, Welburn explained the geography of the Delmarva Peninsula, where these nations lived. Using a digital map, he explained that the peninsula is occupied by much of modern-day Delaware and the east coasts of Virginia and Maryland.

In discussing the history of the Powhatans of the James River Basin on the Virginia Tidewater, Welburn touched briefly on John Smith’s visit to the Powhatans in 1607. He found that not only did the various tribes of this confederacy speak the same language — Algonquian — but also that Smith misinterpreted their religious practices and deities.

“He identified that they are, say, wary of the spirit Okeus who he described as their devil,” Welburn said about Smith’s reaction to one of the Powhatans’ principal gods.

The Powhatan Confederacy— made up of the Rappahannock, Mattaponi and Upper Mattaponi, Chickahominy and Eastern Chickahominy — occupied the eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay. The Piscataway, on the other hand, lived closer to the Potomac River. When talking about tribes located near the Potomac, Welburn recalled a piece of information that the late jazz musician Jacques Butler said. Butler described how the some of the Native people in this area not only called it Foggy Bottom, but Froggy Bottom as well.

“The city of Washington sort of grew around them,” Welburn added.

He continued to state that this is not an uncommon phenomenon, citing modern-day Brooklyn and its growth around a Native American tribe.

Welburn’s research areas include Native American literatures, Eastern Native literatures, ethno-histories and identities and American and Indigenous studies theories and methods. One of the main themes of his discussion was his own, and many other people’s, mixed Native ancestry.

On the colonial period of the United States, Welburn talked about the northern migration that many Native Americans in the Southeast made, as well as the increase of mixed indigenous peoples during this period. A fair number of men in this time died in various wars, therefore, many Native women had to marry outside of the tribe they were born into.

Toward the end of the presentation, Welburn posed difficult questions regarding mixed ancestry that came to his mind.

“If Indians stop being Indians, then what are they supposed to be?” he asked. “What are you supposed to be? A non-person?”

He also asked about the “one-drop rule” that those of African American and Native American ancestry face, and someone that is seven-eighths Native American and one-eighth Black, is considered Black as opposed to Native

Welburn also presented photographs of his ancestors to the event’s attendees. When showing a picture of his mother, Welburn looked at the photo of her fondly and said with a soft chuckle, “We used to call her Gertrude.”

He brought up his mother again, when asked jokingly by an audience member, “How do you keep that memory?” Welburn answered by explaining that remembering the history of his ancestry has been an easy practice for him since he was a child.

“I was always interested. I don’t know how it came that way,” he said.

Welburn recalled a time when he was six years old that he was watching television and heard something offensive being said about Native Americans. His mom overheard it and slammed him against a wall and said, “Don’t you dare ever say that about Native people.”

Brooke Yuen, a junior public health major on the pre-med track, mentioned how the Native community is a very tiny minority on the UMass campus. “The event is there,” she said, “to give students a sense of inclusion.”

“It’s hard to find Native students sometimes, so when we do, we try to reach out to them and say, ‘Come,’” Yuen said.

Other guests of “Native Voices” this fall included Justin Beatty, Brie Adams, Kathleen Brown-Perez and Joyce Vincent, who was part of the circle at the Welburn’s Nov. 27 presentation.

Vincent was formerly an associate director at the Center for Multicultural Advancement and Student Success (CMASS), which works closely with all four of UMass’ cultural centers. Before that, Vincent served as director of JWECC. Currently, she is a lecturer. Vincent is of Cherokee descent, and also has ancestry from the Gullah Islands.

“I think students in general could better utilize the cultural centers, to come and learn about different histories that they didn’t know about,” Vincent said. “Keep an open mind.”

Jackson Cote can be reached at jkcote@umass.edu and followed on Twitter @jackson_k_cote.

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