John “Blackfeather” Jeffries, in a Marine cap and bear-claw necklace, sat on a bench watching volunteers plant tall, cedar poles again in the grass.
The first time, there was no sitting, he said.
With two bad knees and two bad hips, Jeffries sawed almost all the 396 poles himself – burning the ends like his ancestors did – for the palisade around the replica village of his Occaneechi tribe.
For seven years, the village brought visitors to the banks of the Eno River behind the Orange County Courthouse in Hillsborough.
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There, they saw a few huts and sweat lodge that echoed the Occaneechi people who briefly lived nearby, after being driven from Virginia’s Roanoke River by Bacon’s Rebellion in the 1600s.
But by 2004, the village had fallen into disrepair and Jeffries had to literally pull up the stakes.
A few weathered gray cedars were left behind like ghosts.
On a February morning, 20 volunteers lifted and lowered new poles from Cates Sawmill in Efland into 8-inch diameter holes dug 18 inches into the ground.
A few hour later, the first 100 poles stood tall, and Jeffries called his helpers over.
“Every one of you I appreciate,” he said, because “I know what it is to put a pole in.”
‘This is for us’
Josh O’Neil, a student at Elon University, grew up in Nash County where his father told him about their Ocanneechi ancestry.
He started researching his history, learning how Native Americans were prohibited from speaking their language and practicing their religion and heritage, “which is why a lot of it’s faded away.”
“I figured it was sort of my duty (to volunteer) considering these are my people and this is for us,” O’Neil, 22, said as he pulled up extra dirt from one of the holes.
“My generation and the generation that comes after us are the ones that are going to have to remember these traditions and sort of remember what it means to be Occaneechi,” he said.
Most of the volunteers were not native American and said they came out of respect for the project, for Jeffries or his family members.
Foreman Francisco Plaza said rebuilding the village one cedar pole at a time is hard work, “the kind of a job a lot of people wouldn’t want.”
“But I love it,” he added. “It’s like a meditation.”
Labor of love
Several of the volunteers had attended a blessing of the site on a cold afternoon last December.
At that gathering, Jeffries recalled how, as a a second-shift dispatcher for Piedmont Electric in 1997, he began cutting the cedar poles for the first village wall.
The village was a labor of love for her cousin, said Vickie Jeffries, the Occaneechi’s tribal administrator.
“He would actually come and sit and do arrows and people would come by and sit with him,” she said. "It means a lot to him, and believe me he will be out here every single day.”
This time Jeffries has assistance to both build and sustain the village.
The project is a collaboration of the tribe, the Alliance for Historic Hillsborough, the town of Hillsborough and Orange County, which provided $20,000 for the new poles and some paid help.
Doing his part
In 2002 the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation became North Carolina’s eighth official Indian tribe.
But Jeffries said the people who once fished, hunted and farmed along the river bank – “including tribes that predated the Occaneechi by a thousand years” – have been largely forgotten.
The village was never about him, he said, but about his people.
People like his father, who Jeffries said at age 98 came down to the village in his wheelchair and said, “I didn’t know how my people lived, but since you’ve built this you’ve taught me.”
The next work day for the village is April 1 if the sawmill has enough poles ready, April 8 if it rains.
Jeffries, who’ll turn 78 in May, will keep a watchful eye but says he won’t be doing the heavy lifting.
The first time he built the village, on crutches, he cut four of the original poles with a stone axe, the rest with a chain saw.
“I think I’ve done my part down at that village,” he said.
“Excavating Occaneechi Town”
The following history comes from “Excavating Occaneechi Town: Archaeology of an Eighteenth-Century Indian Village in North Carolina” by R. P. Stephen Davis, Jr., Patrick Livingood, H. Trawick Ward and Vincas Steponaitis of UNC’s Research Laboratories of Archaeology.
The first European explorers in present-day Virginia and the Carolina Piedmont found small Indian tribes with a similar culture and language, the authors write.
“The Occaneechi controlled much of the deerskin trade ... partly because one of their villages, on an island in the Roanoke River, was astride the Great Trading Path from Virginia to Georgia. ... They seem to have maintained and reinforced their role in the trade network through warfare and intimidation ... which eventually led to an eruption of armed hostilities with Nathaniel Bacon’s militia in 1676.”
“After the battle with Bacon, the Occaneechis were so reduced in numbers that they could no longer defend their island stronghold on the Roanoke,” the authors write. “The survivors abandoned their home territory, retreated southward, and reestablished a village on the Eno River, near present Hillsborough.”
In 1701, surveyor John Lawson visited the Occaneechi, describing “no Indians having greater Plenty of Provisions than these.” By 1722, however, disease, warfare, and rum had all but destroyed Indian societies in the Piedmont. “Remnants ... either huddled together around Fort Christanna in Virginia or moved to join their cousins, the Catawba, in South Carolina. By 1730, except for a few isolated Indian families, the ... Piedmont lay mostly vacant, awaiting the arrival of hordes of colonists from Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania.”
To read “Excavating Occaneechi Town” go to http://www.ibiblio.org/dig/.