Keeper of the village
Standing 12 feet away, John “Blackfeather” Jefferies is holding an atlatl, preparing to launch. In the late 1600s, the spear would have been hurled toward game downrange. There aren’t many people now who have seen at atlatl hurled or who can throw an atlatl like the 74-year-old Jefferies.
Jefferies is well known in Hillsborough. He has a smile that defeats a cool and gloomy afternoon and he looks into your eyes when he speaks. He is a member of the Occaneechi Saponi Nation and around these parts; he is probably the most recognized member of this tribe.
For many years, Jefferies and his tribal members sought recognition by the state of North Carolina; they still seek federal recognition, but as Jefferies says, “the government was shut down before it was shut down.”
Born in Hillsborough and a graduate of Central High School in 1957, Jefferies knows this town as his home and homeland, too. From high school he enlisted in the Marine Corp where he was a paratrooper in the early 1960s and was stationed in Cuba during the missile crisis.
He is retired now, having spent time at both Piedmont Electric and Dual Supply.
The Occaneechi Saponi, before the late 1600s, inhabited an island in Roanoke near Clarksville, Va. Following what was known as Bacon’s Rebellion, the tribe scattered with many locating in what is now Hillsborough. Though there is much history and local account and genealogy, it wasn’t until 2002 that North Carolina officially recognized the tribe, as its eighth official Indian tribe.
“I spent my whole life hoping that day would come,” Jefferies said.
Jefferies is most concerned with the reality that the knowledge passed down from generation to generation will one day be gone.
“I wonder, right now, who will pass on the knowledge of our people,” he said. Hillsborough has a rich history that it values, and one of the most treasured and unique artifacts of history that is relevant both to the town and to our nation’s heritage is maintained by Jefferies.
In his possession are not just handcrafted pieces of the past, but legacy-inspired and shaped artifacts of our nation. From the stone-forged arrowheads to the river-cane arrow shafts to the dress attire to the spears and axes and rakes formed from the antlers of deer, Jefferies has an authentic collection that is worthy of public viewing.
“This should be somewhere, in town, where people can see and learn and understand,” Jefferies said. It is his passion and understanding and appreciation for what made this country the place that it is, blemishes and all, that has kindled a desire by Jefferies to share his collection, his links to a legacy.
“I want a place where people can see this, touch it, and experience all that is native and historic,” Jefferies said.
“This is all priceless and very important,” Jefferies said. “I am not going to live forever and if I am lucky to live the next twenty-five years, I am hopeful for a place that all of this can be on display and shared with others locally and globally.”
On the walls of Jefferies’ building are hand-written messages from those who have been fortunate enough to witness his exhibit and pieces of Native American history. “People from all over the world have come here and seen what I have and they all leave here with the same message: that our past is important and this should be shared with many more people, especially those in our own town,” Jefferies said.
As a member of his tribal nation, Jefferies will continue to do the work and outreach necessary to maintain his people’s legacy. As a resident and well-recognized person of this town, Jefferies hopes that he is able to witness the day that what is close to his heart and soul, will be viewed locally and globally. For a town that is lavish with history, these pieces of history maintained by Jefferies are intricate pieces of thread woven into what makes this town historic.
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