Jeffries keeps Occaneechi people’s past present

mschultz@newsobserver.comJanuary 28, 2014 


John ‘Blackfeather‘ Jeffries, Occaneechi tribal elder, has filled his shed with items from nature that he has collected in his wandering and uses in his demonstrations and exhibits of how the Occaneechis lived nearly 300 years ago in the area. He is holding one of the authentic arrows he makes.


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    The 19th annual Occaneechi Band of the Saponis Nation Pow Wow will be held June 7 at 4902 Dailey Store Road in Burlington. For more information see

— John Jeffries looked up from the slingshot, feathered arrows and bear jawbone on the table.

“I tell my children, ‘You know who you are,’” the Occanneechi tribal elder told the Chapel Hill Historical Society audience. “And if you don’t know who you are, come over here; I’ll tell you.”

“I’m full blooded – I’ve got 16 pints.”

Jeffries spoke on the rise, fall and rebirth of the small Native American tribe that once called the banks of the Eno River in Hillsborough home. Today the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation has 1,600 members and owns 25 acres in Alamance County, where it hopes to build a tribal center.

They are the eighth-recognized tribe in North Carolina. But it was a long struggle to win recognition, Jeffries said. Many of the markers the state requires to prove a a 200-year-history in North Carolina were lost as members moved, intermarried and were assimilated.

Jeffries, 74, was born in his maternal grandparents’ home. John Jeffries is his “Social Security name,” he explained. His Indian name, roughly translated as “Blackfeather,” actually means “Dances with Feathers that are Ebony” – buzzard feathers, he said.

The tribe is descended from Siouan people whose ancestors traveled from the Ohio River Valley 1,000 years ago to the Piedmont region of Virginia and North Carolina. The Occaneechi settled on an island off modern-day Roanoke, Va., dealing in fur, deerskin and later guns, controlling trade until 1676 when settlers attacked the tribe and scattered its survivors, Jeffries said.

A group of Occaneechi fled south to Hillsborough. In 1701, visitor John Lawson described a palisaded village enclosing a dozen grass- and bark-covered wigwams and a sweat lodge. Gardens, burials and other activities took place outside the log walls.

In 1713 Virginia and England signed a treaty with the Occaneechi and related tribes and they returned to Virginia, joining as a single confederation. But when a protective fort closed, their land was redistributed to European colonists. Later, when new laws discriminated against free persons of color, as Indians were grouped, the Occaneechi remigrated south to Alamance County, forming a community in the Pleasant Grove area that became known as “Little Texas” because the dark-skinned inhabitants looked like “Texicans,” Jeffries said in a 1996 UNC Charlotte interview

By the mid-20th century, social pressures had robbed the tribe of much of its native heritage, according to “Occaneechi: Survival of the Circle,” a documentary Jeffries showed during his talk at the historical Society. Many Occaneechi, their children sent to colored schools, did not know their history or even who they were.

“My grandmother always instilled in me that I was an Indian, but she didn’t know the tribe,” Jeffries says in the film.

The tribe started the state recognition process in 1985, Jeffries said. “We were denied so many times, it’s obvious they were against us being recognized,” he said. “We had a very rough time.”

“They said (it would take) 10 years. It was 17 years.”

Jeffries’ father was 89 years old when the state recognition came. Jeffries took the official notice in to his father’s bedside.

“I said, “Well, Pop, now you can be an official Indian.”

The old man looked at the piece of paper. He read it twice.

‘Your mother’s dead. All your relatives are dead,” Jeffries recalled his father saying ruefully.

“He said, ‘Some white lady said I could be an Indian.’”

Today, Jeffries, his long braid streaked with gray, holds no bitterness. He hopes to rebuild the replica Occaneechi village, lost amid courthouse expansion and park construction in Hillsborough a few years ago, on the tribe’s land in nearby Alamance. The annual tribal pow-wow will take place there, the first land the tribe has owned in over 250 years, on June 7.

His talk finished, Jeffiies picked up one of the arrows he made from the table. The feathers spiral out of the end of the wooden shaft, instead of sticking out at straight angles. The better to make it fly, he says as he stretches out his arms, palms up and rolls the arrow down to his chest.

“I tell my grandchildren you are not responsible for what’s behind you; you didn’t lay those tracks,” he said. “But you lay the tracks ahead of you.”

Schultz: 919-932-2003

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