Eight-year-old Crystal Red Bear Cavalier was adorable, bright and bursting with excitement. She had her heart set on becoming a Native American princess, and she had the perfect plan.
She’d register for the upcoming Native American pageant and bulldoze the competition, all en route to her glorious coronation.
Her grandparents, however, said no.
Dating back generations, Cavalier’s ancestors had hidden their Native American identity from census collectors out of fear that the government might seize seize their land.
“[The U.S. government] had these people literally thinking they would get their families scooped up and put on a reservation,” said Jason Crazy Bear Keck, who married Cavalier decades later.
For her ancestors, it meant identifying as African American rather than Native American in official records. For Cavalier, it meant no pageant crown.
On Friday, the Mebane native, who now goes by Cavalier-Keck, will take to a platform far larger than any pageant stage: Washington’s National Mall.
Cavalier-Keck, a member of Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation, is a speaker at the Indigenous Peoples March, whose organizers expect a crowd of some 10,000 people.
Her husband is a speaker too, as are U.S. Reps. Debra Haaland, D-N.M., and Sharice Davids, D-Ky., the first Native American women elected to Congress.
‘Not a protest’
Happening a day before the third annual Women’s March, the march is billed as a grassroots event to unite indigenous groups not just in the United States, but across the world.
It will begin with a prayer outside the Bureau of Indian Affairs office, then proceed to the National Mall where speakers will address genocide of indigenous peoples, economic disparities, and what organizers call an “environmental holocaust” on indigenous lands.
The last time Native Americans dominated the news cycle, Keck said, was amid the Dakota Access Pipeline protests at Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota. The months-long protests, which turned violent and led to hundreds of arrests, gave detractors a chance to vilify indigenous people. Organizers hope the march will give indigenous people the spotlight again, just not like before.
“At Standing Rock, [the government] made it a conflict,” Keck said. “The way that we’ve laid this out — we have permission, this is not a protest, this is just a gathering — so, there’s no way that they can make it negative.”
At the march, indigenous people hope to spread awareness of their issues, as well as promote solidarity among each other.
“I see it as my responsibility to educate my colleagues about the federal government’s trust responsibility and provide a voice to advocate for those who have historically not had a seat at the table to make a long-awaited change,” said Haaland, a member of the Pueblo of Laguna tribe.
Outside of urban centers, Reggie Brewer, of Pembroke, N.C., said Native Americans have come to expect discriminatory remarks when they are not in “predominantly Indian” communities. To him, having a seat at the table means equal rights in reality, not just on paper.
“In the 1970s, everybody thought Indian people or indigenous people of North America were extinct,” he said. “So we were called everything from Mexican to mixed bloods to half black/half white,” said Brewer, a member of the Lumbee-Cheraw tribe.
Keck, a member of the Choctaw bands of Louisiana who grew up in Oakland, Calif. and Atlanta, said even though he was raised among people of color, many didn’t know what to think of him. He found himself labeled “weird” by his classmates.
North Carolina challenges
North Carolina has the largest Native American population east of the Mississippi River. But tensions and geographical distance have led to tribe-to-tribe problems, and now, risks from outside as well.
J.D. Arch, a member of Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in Cherokee, N.C., pointed to the Trump administration’s advancement of the Dakota Access Pipeline construction and the reduction in size of Bears Ears National Monument.
“If we are not careful, even though our lands are held in trust, by this administration violating some of those tribal rights and tribal lands out west, they could easily come to North Carolina to get their hands on some of our land,” Arch said.
In North Carolina, the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline would run through indigenous lands in the eastern part of the state. Keck said the pipeline would lay siege to local Native Americans’ historical heritage and modern-day communities.
Aside from outsider influence, North Carolina tribes also face challenges among themselves.
Keck believes he and his wife were invited to speak because of the work they’ve done to improve the outlook for Native American life in the state.
Cavalier-Keck co-founded the nonprofit Saponi Stickball Association last year with her husband. It promotes lacrosse through the lens of cultural identities and indigenous roots. When Cavalier-Keck speaks Friday, she will be representing that organization, which is based in Burlington.
From his time in California, when he was adopted into a Chumash clan, Keck said he noticed the indigenous peoples network there was much more connected than in North Carolina.
“A lot of these kids get sent in with their parents telling them, like, ‘be careful, we don’t trust that tribe because back in the ’70s or ’80s that tribe tried to do this to us,’” Keck said. “There’s always been this tension.”
Keck and Cavalier-Keck were married last June in a traditional Native American ceremony. Members of nearly all eight federally or state-recognized tribes were there. The ceremony was “a first” in that North Carolina tribes, owing to historical tensions, rarely gather together, he said. Despite neither newlywed belonging to the same tribe as him, the couple worked to build trust and friendships, and Arch bestowed a traditional Cherokee blessing on them.
Now, seven carloads of North Carolina tribe members are headed to Washington. Keck hopes they can pick up right where the wedding left off.