John “Blackfeather” Jeffries can see centuries of Occaneechi history in the tribe’s 25 acres of grassy meadows and native woodlands just over the Orange-Alamance county line.
The Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation bought land in 2004 on Daily Store Road off N.C. 119 north of Mebane. The area is known as the Little Texas settlement, Jeffries said, because the mixed-race inhabitants’ features made people say they looked like “Texicans.”
The land is the first the tribe has owned in 250 years, Jeffries said. Despite having two hip and two knee surgeries, the 75-year-old tribal elder is on a quest to build a place that celebrates Occaneechi history and culture, and that one day could generate income for the tribe.
There’s still a lot to do, he said.
The idea for the center is rooted in downtown Hillsborough, where Jeffries worked with others to excavate and restore an Occaneechi settlement on the Eno River. Only part of the village remains in Hillsborough’s River Park.
The tribe’s new Homeland Preservation Project includes upgrades to the ceremonial grounds, where they hold pow wows and other events; bigger tribal offices; and a walking tour and exhibits. The center also could have spaces for learning, sports and a community kitchen, Jeffries said.
“We come up here just to get away,” he said. “We sit up there in the chairs, and there’s always a breeze coming across (the meadow).”
The land is rich with paw paws, Queen Anne’s Lace and other native trees, wildflowers and herbs. Young heirloom apple trees planted in 2004 are bearing fruit but need some care, Jeffries said. More orchards and gardens, plus a farmers market, are planned.
A tenant farmers cabin sits one one part of the land, with a smokehouse and a barn. When the buildings are repaired, Jeffries said a curator could use them to teach visitors about life in the early 20th century, when tenant farmers rented their land, often paying for it with a portion of their crops.
The Occaneechi were prolific traders, their homeland once occupying about 750 acres from southern Virginia to Guilford, Wake and Chatham counties. They first encountered white explorers at their settlement on the Roanoke River near modern-day Clarksville, Va.
In 1676, settler Nathaniel Bacon launched a rebellion against the colony of Virginia, attacking the Occaneechi, who were trading with the governor.
The Occaneechi were decimated and scattered across the region, with many families settling near the Eno River in Hillsborough. In the 1780s, their descendants settled at Little Texas, in the Pleasant Grove community.
That history is what he wants to preserve, Jeffries said. Many items line the tribal office walls and shelves, while more is on display at the Mebane Historical Museum. Even more tribal history is kept at Occoneechee State Park in Clarksville, Va.
The Occaneechi have roughly 1,900 registered members and are one of eight major tribes in North Carolina. It took them 17 years of fighting to get state recognition in 2002; they’re still trying to get federal recognition.
There’s a core group dedicated to the homeland project, Jeffries said. Besides living busy, modern lives, the tribe’s small size and its blended families, some of whom may feel less of a connection to the land, means they need community partners, he and others said.
They’ve developed relationships with schools, hosting hundreds of students over the past decade. They’ve also gotten a lot of help from Boy Scout troops, college students and others, he said. The tribe’s nonprofit status means the work meets students’ community service requirements.
Students from Wartburg College in Iowa have held fundraisers for two years to pay for service trips to the site, and groups from North Carolina A&T University in Greensboro, Duke University, UNC and Virginia Tech have come to help and learn. The Delta Pi chapter of the Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity at Elon University brought about 70 people in March to demolish dilapidated buildings and clear brush. They could return this fall.
The Occaneechi homeland isn’t just a place for the tribe, Jeffries said. It will provide the community with a place for education, recreation and socializing, while making sure the last generation that remembers the way things used to be can pass on its knowledge.
Otherwise, Jeffries said, “you will have artifacts, but the people won’t be here.”