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Nov. 24, 2020

Walking in Two Worlds: What My Lumbee Heritage Means to Me

By Chelsea K. Barnes

As a member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, my life and experiences have been largely shaped by my heritage. It is the essence of my identity and has been for as long as I can remember. Before I am an attorney, I am a Native American. Before I am a North Carolinian, I am a Native American. Before I am a woman, I am a Native American.

The majority of my adult life has been spent striving to teach others about what my heritage means, whether I was leading student organizations, planning events to bring awareness to Native issues, or noting that I would become one of the 0.2 percent of Native American attorneys during my law school graduation speech.

The history of our nation’s relationship with Native Americans is incredibly complex and often misunderstood. It is unfortunate that our schools do not appreciate this complexity. Far too many people believe that Native Americans are “extinct,” or living in the ways we are depicted in old history textbooks. The United States is home to hundreds of tribes, each with a unique and complicated history. Seeking to oversimplify this narrative is a recipe for disaster.

To me, being Native American is an experience of walking in two worlds. My heritage plays an integral part in the way I approach my work, my relationships, and my desire to better my community. As I now find myself in a unique place of privilege, I do everything I can to pay it forward to other young people who look like me and hope to find themselves in an office like mine.

My heritage means an intense closeness to family and community that is sometimes difficult for others to comprehend. My heritage means the fuzzy feeling I get when I hear a distinct Lumbee twang in someone’s voice far away from eastern North Carolina, and I instantly know they’re from “home.” My heritage means pride in being the people of the dark water and the resilience we show when acts of God cause that water to rupture the banks of our rivers. My heritage means collard sandwiches and muscadine grape ice cream. My heritage means the Battle of Hayes Pond and the day the Lumbees ran the Ku Klux Klan out of North Carolina.

My heritage is rich, unyielding, and self-determined. Despite the many challenges Native Americans face, we persevere and we educate. We are still here.


Nelson Mullins celebrates Native American Heritage Month by honoring the accomplishments of the original inhabitants, explorers, and settlers of the United States as they contribute to American society.