Not many days go by without someone asking Savannah Baber: What is your race?
She’s often mistaken for a Latina or being bi-racial. But Baber, 18, is American Indian or Native American, part of the Chickahominy and Lumbee tribes.
She grew up in Garner.
Often times, when she tells someone she is Native American or Chickahominy and Lumbee, she gets looks of bewilderment.
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“Usually they’ll follow back with the question of, ‘Oh. Well, what’s that?’” Baber said.
She explains to them where her parents are from and how one is part of the Chickahominy tribe and the other is Lumbee Indian. Occasionally she’ll get the ignorant comments from people who say she doesn’t look American Indian, she said, in which case she tells them that all American Indians don’t look the same.
“When I was younger I had a harder time with that because it made me feel more isolated,” Baber said. “So often growing up I had been the only native student in my class. So getting that question all the time started to wear on me and I wasn’t even willing to talk about it.”
“But I’ve gotten to the point as I’ve gotten older and embraced my culture more, I am proud to share it with them.”
There are 202 American Indians living in Garner, according to the 2012 U.S. Census Data, and more than 4,000 in Wake County alone.
In North Carolina, there are 122,000 American Indians representing eight tribes. Greg Richardson, the executive director for the NC Commission of Indian Affairs, said that number is the highest east of the Mississippi River.
Richardson introduced Baber and nine-year-old Kyla Jarrett, 2015-16 Junior Miss Lumbee, to the Garner town council in early August to show the town some of Garner’s own successful American Indians. Richardson said he would like for the town to sign a resolution to recognize November as Indian Heritage month.
Baber, a 2015 Garner Magnet High School graduate, was the winner of the Miss Indian North Carolina pageant. There weren’t many girls, who participated in the pageant – three to be exact – but with the title she advocates on behalf on the American Indian population. She speaks at engagements and educates the public that the American Indian population exists.
Baber often talks about her past experiences and the issues being faced in the American Indian community.
She’s heard all the stereotypes. From casinos, to alcoholics, to living in tee-pees, to long straight hair, to American Indians all being the same.
Many of the issues in the American Indian community stem from poverty and high drop out ratings.
When comparing, white, black, Hispanic and American Indian, American Indian population had the second highest dropout rate in 2012-13.
Gwen Locklear, coordinator for the Wake County PSS Title VII Indian Education Program, said nationwide, American Indians rank the highest.
Title VII Indian Education Program helps American Indian students and provides them resources and tutoring to help them become successful.
“Normally it is because of their parents’ backgrounds,” Locklear said. “They’ll come from parents that probably did not finish high school themselves. And that’s not true for all but it is true for some. A lot of your natives come from farmers. A lot of these children are raised by extended family such as grandparents, aunts and uncles.”
Locklear said another problem facing the American Indian population is that they are often forgotten and not represented. She said some students are afraid to tell their peers they are native.
“I’ve had students come and tell me that they tell their teachers they’re Indian and their teacher will tell them they are not,” she said. “Most Indians do not fit that TV mentality of what Indians are supposed to look like. We don’t stand in feathers and buck skin, so we are not easily as recognizable. It’s as if we’re invisible.”
Wake County has had the program since 1996, yet only 423 students participated in the program in last year.
Locklear said it is a struggle to get people to participate in the program that could potentially be beneficial to some.
Baber said the program was beneficial to her. She was able to utilize the resources provided to her and she took cultural classes to learn about where she came from.
It gave her a better understanding and pride about her culture, she said.
Baber will attend Wake Forest on a scholarship this fall.
“We are proud of where we come from, but we’re also moving forward,” Baber said. “We don’t like to be looked at as just historical figures.”