SNOW HILL — This week, a Tuscarora Indian with a notorious past set up camp near the burial ground of his ancestors, a remote patch of Greene County farmland known in 1713 as Fort Nooherooka.
Timothy Jacobs and two other tribesmen built a log fire on the thin stretch of public right of way along N.C. 58 – a skinny finger of land within a dust-cloud’s distance of the passing trucks.
His presence on this ground, sacred to the Tuscarora, adds a twist to the three-day conference on the 18th-century clash that saw roughly 1,000 natives killed. The massacre is being commemorated at nearby East Carolina University through Sunday.
Roughly 150 Tuscarora will arrive in Greenville from Lewiston, N.Y., where they are a federally recognized tribe with a reservation near Niagara Falls. They will explain native customs that began in North Carolina and flourished up North after the fighting at Nooherooka, when much of the tribe fled for friendly Iroquois territory.
But Jacobs pitched his tent along the battleground’s edge to remind the state that plenty of Tuscarora stayed behind in the battle’s aftermath, and they flourish today.
“We’re not here as a sign of protest,” said Jacobs, 44, standing where a monument to Nooherooka is going up this week. “We’re not here out of disrespect. We’re here to honor the people who gave their lives so we can be here today.”
Jacobs’ history makes it easy to misinterpret this stance.
In 1988, he and fellow Tuscarora Eddie Hatcher walked into the office of The Robesonian newspaper in Lumberton carrying sawed-off shotguns and held the staff hostage for 10 hours. No one was hurt in the standoff, which the pair carried out to call attention to drug trafficking and other corruption in the county Sheriff’s Office.
They spoke of racial inequality in the county split between white, black and native populations, and gained a folk-hero status even after serving prison time for kidnapping. Amnesty International called Hatcher a political prisoner, giving his reputation an aura that didn’t fade until he was later convicted of murder, dying behind bars at age 51.
In 2006, Jacobs led roughly two dozen people to occupy the Nooherooka site, asking that it be protected from farming and returned to Tuscarora ownership. They also asked that remains excavated by archaeologists be returned from ECU, posting a sign that read, “Where’s the justice in America for native people?”
Sheriff’s deputies told them that the landowner had asked that they leave, and they faced arrest if they stayed. Jacobs later demanded to be heard at a public meeting in Snow Hill, insisting, “We take offense to farming on that land.”
George Mewborn’s grandfather bought the land in 1909, when it was still known as Nehucky Farm – a derivative of the name for the Tuscaroras’ last stand.
His father plowed it and routinely turned up beads and lead balls in the soil, and Mewborn grew up hearing stories of long-ago fighting on family ground. Today, his family grows soybeans there, with roots too shallow to disturb anything underneath.
He donated a portion of his land on N.C. 58 for a public easement, making space for an arch-shaped monument to the massacre. He called it sacred ground, and is taking part in the program at ECU. His father befriended Chief Kenneth Patterson of the Tuscarora wolf clan in New York.
But he had no comment on Jacobs’ camp, saying he didn’t want it to take away from the 300th anniversary program.
Jacobs was arrested Sunday night on the historic site, picked up for failing to appear on an old traffic charge. He spent a few hours in jail before returning to camp on the right of way, which he said a magistrate instructed him to do.
Greene County Sheriff Lemmie Smith said no one has any problem with Jacobs and his party being there. But Jacobs still thinks the North Carolina Tuscarora have been excluded in favor of the federally recognized Indians to the North.
They won’t be making any presentations at ECU this week. They won’t be playing in the lacrosse game with ECU students, unlike the tribe from New York.
“My DNA and my mother’s DNA have not changed,” he said. “All the Tuscarora didn’t go to New York.”
Land and compensation
There’s nothing left to suggest the cataclysm that wiped out the Indians’ pine-log fort at Nooherooka. This Waterloo for the North Carolina natives remains almost wiped from North Carolina’s memory.
But in Tuscarora circles, the massacre remains recent and bitter history. More than 900 North Carolina natives were shot, burned, scalped or sold into slavery by English colonists and their Indian allies from other tribes.
For the Tuscarora who went North, the land is still considered home. For those who stayed, it remains a symbol of their struggle for identity.
More than 8,000 Tuscarora live in North Carolina, made up of nine clans, Jacobs said. They don’t even refer to themselves by the Tuscarora name, but rather Skarureh Katenuaka – hemp gatherers of the sunken pines. Their constitution, Jacobs said, is the Great Law of Peace of the Iroquois nations.
The Tuscarora Indians in North Carolina have long sought federal recognition, most recently in an unsuccessful 2006 lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court. In that case, as in others, their claim was rejected because of the 1956 Lumbee Act, which designated the Indians of Robeson, Scotland, Hoke and Cumberland counties as Lumbee and made them ineligible for federal services.
To this day, Jacobs said, Tuscarora want neither to be tied to the Lumbee, who number roughly 50,000, or to the federal government. They do want land returned, and its present owners compensated.
“We’re not asking people to move,” he said. “There’s no one living here. There’s not a soul here but our ancestors.”
North, South differences
Relations between the New York and North Carolina Tuscarora are not always cordial. Leaders in the North do not always consider the Southerners to have tribal status.
“They say, ‘They’re all mixed, they’re all mixed with blacks or whatever,’” said Doug Anderson, who described himself as both roads commissioner and ambassador for the Tuscarora in New York.
Anderson visited with Jacobs at the camp this week.
“I say what the hell? It’s no different up there,” Anderson said of the ancestry dispute.
As for the festivities this week, organizer and ECU history professor Larry Tise said anyone who had done any scholarly work was welcome to present at the 300th anniversary. But he didn’t hear from any of the North Carolina Tuscarora until this month.
“My long-term goal is to understand who these people are living among us in North Carolina today,” Tise said. “We just haven’t gotten there yet.”
At his camp, Jacobs said he plans to hear some of the presentations at ECU, and to see the lacrosse game. But he doesn’t think a fancy dinner, or a reception with wine, is an event many Tuscarora will want to attend.