A graduate student named Maya Little recently re-baptized UNC-Chapel Hill’s Confederate monument (known as Silent Sam) in a mixture of her own blood and red ink. Little described her action as an “opportunity to teach.” Little, who is black, wrote, “Silent Sam is violence; Silent Sam is the genocide of black people; Silent Sam is antithetical to our right to exist.” She said, “We see our blood [on it] and now you will too.”
A century ago, the university allowed the United Daughters of the Confederacy to place the statue at the center of the university’s most public square. At its first “baptism,” the ceremony to dedicate the monument, a (white) Confederate veteran, university trustee, and wealthy industrialist named Julian Carr spoke words that are as haunting as Little’s. Carr praised Confederate veterans for “saving the very life of the Anglo-Saxon race. Praise God.”
In his dedication speech, Carr described his commitment to white supremacy in terms as personal as Little’s. Shortly after his return from Appomattox, Carr said, he “horse-whipped a negro wench” only 100 yards from the statue on the “quiet” streets of Chapel Hill, because the woman had reportedly “insulted and maligned” a “Southern Lady.” Carr’s audience knew which kind of “Southern Lady” to which he referred—not women like Maya Little. Or women like me.
Little’s choice of the color red resonated with me beyond what she articulated. It reminded me of my ancestors’ blood, shed for the Confederate cause, but also for their own cause. I belong to the Lumbee tribe of North Carolina, the largest American Indian nation east of the Mississippi, over 65,000 people. My ancestors were southerners before the South even existed. Many in my family tree resisted the Confederacy and remained pro-Union; my great-great-grandfather was executed for his part in this rebellion.
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When I say I’m Lumbee, I don’t mean that I’m “part Lumbee” or that my great-grandmother was a “Lumbee princess” or some nonsense like that. I’m a member of a sovereign nation with a sacred connection to family and place. I’m a daughter, granddaughter, sister, cousin, mother, and aunt. I’m also a history professor at UNC, a role which Carr never imagined, either for a lady or a Lumbee, never mind both.
Today, Southern Indians are far from gone; we’ve been here the whole time, living with the consequences of colonialism, slavery, the Civil War, and white supremacy, just as black and white Americans do. Good scholarship and teaching on race and the Civil War exist, but American Indians’ roles, whether fighting for the Confederacy, resisting it, or fighting for the Union, are largely unknown to anyone except ourselves and a few historians.
As sovereign nations, tribes saw the war in diplomatic, not just ideological, terms—with whom would they form an alliance? Neither the Confederacy nor the Union offered unqualified benefits. Both presented opportunities and threats, and each Indian community found itself in a different situation.
For my ancestors, it wasn’t as simple as choosing sides—it was about how to protect our own side. The war became a turning point for many of the nearly 600 sovereign indigenous nations that live in what is now the United States.
Today, most Lumbee people are Christian (myself included). In Christianity, red is the color of purifying sacrifice. It’s a sacred color necessary for healing and transformation. It connects us to our ancestors, whether in body or in Christ. Red blood is necessary for love, respect, atonement, and forgiveness to govern our lives. Maya Little did not deface or vandalize the monument, she baptized it in a sanctification ritual thousands of years old.
“Silent Sam” is not sacred, but the blood on “Silent Sam” is. Maya Little told the truth, and asked us to face it. She exposed the blood and guts of white supremacy’s victimization of black men and women. At the same time, when we add American Indians’ meanings for the color red, she further disemboweled the power of white supremacy.