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Native Americans in the Carolina Borderlands: A Critical Ethnography

Native Americans in the Carolina Borderlands: A Critical Ethnography
By Michael Spivey

Michael Spivey is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke. He can be reached at

This paper examines the life-experiences of Native Americans in South Carolina during the segregation and post-segregation periods. I focus on interviewees who attended the few rural schools unofficially designated as “Indian schools” in the state of South Carolina. This paper is derived from an ongoing ethnographic project that began in 1993.1

Except for the recently federally-recognized Catawba Indians, neither the state nor the federal governments recognize the various Native-American groups in South Carolina (Sider, 1993). In fact, for many years, the state of South Carolina did not have a racial category for “Indians.” Drawing on the recent literature of critical cultural studies, both in Sociology and Anthropology, my ongoing ethnographic work among the Pee Dee Indians highlights the specific ways in which the Pee Dee have struggled for, as well as against, racial identification. Beyond the utility of my ethnographic efforts to provide evidence for the Pee Dees’ attempt towards federal recognition, I provide my case-study materials as a “cultural critique” (Marcus & Fischer, 1986) of the state’s historical denial of the existence of Native American identity among the Pee Dee. What are the stories to be told by those who have existed at the borders of this binary racial system between white and black? And, finally, how might such a study contribute to the development of a critical ethnography that promotes cultural critiques from the actual voices and stories of our subjects themselves?

The story of the Pee Dee, as well as other small Native-American groups in South Carolina, has received little scholarly attention (Spivey, 2000). The Pee Dee filed for federal recognition in 1998. While they share a close cultural affinity with the largest group of Native Americans east of the Mississippi River, the Lumbee Indians of North Carolina, the Pee Dee claim a different history, mainly due to the fact that they are located in a different state. The difference in relation to state legal classifications for Native Americans has had a profound impact on the differing histories of the two groups. While my ongoing ethnographic work focuses on the complexities of the multiple ways in which Pee Dee consultants and friends have constructed themselves as Native Americans, for the purpose of this paper, I focus on one of the most important sites of struggle for Pee Dee identity—the identity politics of race in relation to legal definitions of “race” within educational institutions.

My data is derived from oral histories of former students at the Leland Grove Indian School in Dillon County, South Carolina. Pee Dees affectionately called the Leland Grove school “Mr. Brayboy’s school,” after their beloved Lumbee teacher, who dedicated his life to the school and the Pee Dee people. Again, while the local lore surrounding the school and the teacher is common among the Pee Dee as well as local blacks and whites, it has not been formally documented. As the Pee Dee put it: “We were invisible.”

All of the interviewees for this study were raised on sharecropping farms in what is known as “Leland Grove Community,” which is a rural community that borders Dillon County, South Carolina and Robeson County, North Carolina, home of the Lumbee. The local Pee Dee pride themselves in saying, “We were a strong sharecropping Indian community. There were no others, just the big, white farmers and Indian sharecroppers.”

Historically, the Pee Dee Indians of the community were considered ambiguously as either black or white or “mulatto,” which is a term used historically in South Carolina to designate people of Native American decent. The Pee Dee incorporate and appropriate this racial ambiguity by constructing themselves as multicultural from the beginning: “We have always adopted others, mixed with other people.” As a prominent Pee Dee leader (#5) stated during an interview, “Racism has destroyed their identity. I tell many local Pee Dees that if they want to step forward, to go forward, they will have to tell the world that they are more than ‘half-breeds,’ or worse, white!”

Many Pee Dees have historically identified as white in order to gain advantage for themselves during segregation. Furthermore, the category “Indian” did not exist officially in South Carolina. One was either black or white. Nevertheless, Indian identity was preserved in family relations and through community belonging. As another interviewee (#14) stated: “White people around here have always seen the world in black and white. They don’t see that there is a third group here. We could not stand in-between. We had to be classified as one or the other. Sometimes we were white; other times, black. We have been white-washed.”

The Pee Dee in Leland Grove community and the surrounding area construct narratives of living in abject poverty under the sharecropping system. Continuing poverty is a central issue for present efforts towards state and federal recognition. However, the narratives of poverty are imbued with a deep sense of community belonging and continued Native American traditions of sharing. For example, community hunting and sharing of wild game, and community hog killings, are traditions that still prevail in the Pee Dee community.

The Brayboy school was opened in the early 1920s. It was sponsored initially by local landowners. The first teacher at the two-room school was the wife of a local white landowner. The school was seen as a way to provide a rudimentary education for the children, with their education ending at the seventh grade. Also, the school was functional to the local sharecropping system. Students attended school only when they were not needed in the cotton fields. In the early years, most of the Pee Dee children attended school sporadically, if at all. My interviewees always say that, “work in the fields came first!” One problem with identifying the school as an early “Indian” school is the fact that no state records can be found. Unfortunately, the Pee Dee do not have any official documentation that the school was designated as an “Indian school.”

Mr. Brayboy was born near the town of Pembroke, North Carolina. He grew up in family of fourteen children and worked with his family on a tobacco and peach farm. In the 1920s, Mr. Brayboy was teaching at a local elementary school for the Lumbee in Robeson County, as well as attending the Lumbee Normal School, which was a two-year college for the Lumbee, now, the University of North Carolina at Pembroke.

In 1933, Mr. Brayboy married his wife, Lillian, who was white. At this point in time, it was illegal for marriage between Indians and whites. Many court cases took place regarding ambiguity of racial classification and marriage. Mr. Brayboy and his wife knew that they would be called to trial, so they had to make a hard decision. They decided to leave the state. Mr. Brayboy and his wife, Lillian, left North Carolina and settled in Marlboro Country, South Carolina, which is adjacent to Robeson County. Because, officially, Indians did not exist in South Carolina, there was no law against the marriage. In that same year, Mr. Brayboy was offered the teaching position at the Leland Grove School. At the beginning of 1934, Mr. & Mrs. Brayboy moved to the Leland Grove community and Mr. Brayboy began his career and stayed until the state forced closed the school in 1970.

My interviewees construct Mr. Brayboy as their cultural leader. He is admired for his tireless efforts in bringing Indian pride to the Pee Dee people and in providing a quality education for Pee Dee children. When he began at the school, he had little to work with. The children complained that they did not have adequate books to work with. He argued for months with the state to provide him with a school bus so he could reach out into the rural community for potential students. Many times he simply went out into the cotton fields were the children were working in order to convince parents that the children needed to be in school. The state finally gave in to his demands. He drove the bus himself, picking up children well before eight in the morning and taking them all back home in the afternoon. As an interviewee (#22) stated: “He would come many times into the fields and try to get our parents to let us go to school. He promised to work around our field-work. Sometimes, when we didn’t show up at the bus stop, he would come out into the fields and argue with our parents that we needed to be in school.” The local lore constructs Mr. Brayboy as the, “bus driver, teacher, principal, and custodian!” Mr. Brayboy’s successful efforts among the Pee Dee are clearly shown in his mentoring of a student by the name of English Jones. English Jones was discovered by Mr. Brayboy working in the local cotton fields at ten years of age. He had to struggle long with English’s parents to attend his school. He nurtured English through his school and on into high school and college. Years later, Dr. Jones became the Chancellor of Pembroke State University (presently UNC-Pembroke).

Interviewees stated that several times during the school year, Mr. Brayboy would take his students to cultural events such as musicals and plays at the local white high school. Many of the former students remember being starred at and mocked because of their color and their poverty. The politics of Native American identity in the region was certainly foremost on Mr. Brayboy’s agenda.

Mr. Brayboy taught his students about Native American life and history in the region, and he taught his students to be proud of their Native American heritage. At the end of their seventh year at the rural school, the students had a choice to go on to the local white high school. Early on, most of the students did not continue. Parents felt that their children would be mistreated and humiliated at the white school. Also, there was the economic reality of the need for family laborers on the farms. However, as desegregation intensified in the South, more children from the school began making the transition to the white school, though few finished high school.

Mr. Brayboy taught his students pride in their Native American heritage, but he also taught them to be ready for discrimination. He was known to say, “you got to be who you are. But, you’re going to get hurt. You are going to have to be tough when you leave here” (interview with sister-in-law, 1995). Many of Mr. Brayboy’s former students feel that he took them to the events at the white school in order to get them ready for the experience with discrimination and prejudice that awaited them in the white school.

As students began to make the transition to the white high school, they began to experience discrimination and denial of their Native American identity. When children attended the Brayboy school, they were taught to be, and thought of themselves as, “Indian people.” As they entered the white high school, they were denied their identity. Interviewees provide narratives of being tracked in the white school. They were always placed in the lowest sections. The A-section was reserved for better-off, white students. As interviewees stated many times: “They tried to make us feel like dummies!” Mr. Brayboy’s daughter was directly challenged: “When I entered the white school, they told me to put down my race. I put down “Indian.” The principal said that Indians did not exist legally in South Carolina. I said, “Well, I’m coming to your school and I’m an Indian.” They put me down as “white.” The following narrative provides a good summary of the experience of so many Pee Dee students entering the white high school:

We are tired of being tokens. I ran track and was on the foot-ball team, and to the rest of the boys, white and black, I was a token. It was an education, but education with lots of pain. Teachers would tell all the whites to stand up for roll call, then all the blacks. When I didn’t stand up either time, they would say, “Well, why didn’t you stand up?” I would say, “You did not ask Indians to stand up!” And the teacher would say, “You are supposed to stand up with the whites!” “But, I’m not white!” I would say. All the forms had blanks for “white” and “black”, but never anything for Indians. You can look at me and tell I’m not black! But, these forms were just another way of the system forcing me to be “white!” I’m not an “other!” I always handed in the forms blank. I guess I didn’t exist, if you can believe that teacher! It is the same for all of us! A teacher once told me that I was not recognized as an Indian in South Carolina, and if I wanted to be counted, I had to check the “white” blank.

As many of my interviewees feel, Mr. Brayboy attempted to keep his school open against the state’s demands that he close it. Finally, in 1970, against community wishes, Mr. Brayboy capitulated and closed the school. Mr. Brayboy went on to become an assistant principal at the white high school. Most of his former students feel that he took the position in order to help them with any problems they encountered at the white high school. However, Mr. Brayboy died a few years after the closing of his school.

Ironically, the Pee Dee became, for the first time, very visible in 1969, when Mr. Brayboy won State Teacher of the Year in South Carolina, and First Runner-up for the National Teacher of the Year! For a few, fleeting moments, the Pee Dee and their plight held the attention of the nation. The story was carried in Life magazine about Mr. Brayboy, his school, and the children. The new leaders of the Pee Dee hope to carry on where Mr. Brayboy left off, moving their people towards formal recognition.

Academic struggles over race concerning such reified categories as “culture,” “history,” and “identity,” have an indirect bearing on the lives of marginalized people, who must struggle both within and against their hegemonic construction. Such removed academic/theoretical discourses come to inform the policies of powerful institutions, such as the Bureau of Indian Affairs, thus becoming directly implicated with, and constitutive of, issues of inequality and power (Said, 1978; Foucault, 1980). Furthermore, such hegemonic meanings widely circulate and come to inform and resonate with popular cultural representations, as well as everyday commonsense forms of knowledge (Laclau and Mouffe, 1983).

Critical ethnography is one strategy that can help in providing a deconstruction of traditional notions concerning culture, identity, and history. It is the hope that attention to the voices and experiences of everyday subjects will increase, providing a deconstruction and cultural critique of dominant representations via the voices of living, everyday people. As James Clifford (1988:23) wrote:

While ethnographic writing can not entirely escape the reductionist use of dichotomies and essences, it can at least struggle self-consciously to avoid portraying abstract, ahistorical others. It is more than ever crucial for different peoples to form complex concrete images of one another, as well as the relationships of knowledge and power that connect them.

It is my hope that the flexible methodology of critical ethnography will contribute to a fuller, more sympathetic, and concrete understanding of such complex people as the Pee Dee. Much more is needed among Native Americans of the South, and in the United States in general. Critical ethnography is now in a position (as it always has been) to provide cultural critiques of homogenized “Others,” allowing a glimpse into the necessarily hybrid nature of cultural production and identity formation. For too long, aboriginal people have been hemmed in, symbolically, by traditional notions of what counts as aboriginal culture and identity. While people of the dominant society have been allowed to change culturally and adapt new ways of living and new forms of identity, aboriginal people either remain pure in pre-contact cultures or die out with contact with modern societies. What is needed is a focus on the ways in which traditional peoples have re-emerged and constructed themselves differently in differing social, cultural, and institutional contexts. By focusing more on culture-as-process we may come to better understand the politics and poetics of the socially constructed nature of boundaries and “society” as an accomplished fact.


1. My aim is to publish two books from this research. The first was published in 2000, entitled: Native Americans in the Carolina Borderlands: A Critical Ethnography (Spivey, 2000); the other work is forthcoming in 2004, entitled: Mr. Brayboy’s School: The Struggle for Native American Identity in South Carolina. Both books are published by Carolinas Press, Southern Pines, NC.


Clifford, James. (1988). The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Foucault, Michel. (1980). Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977. Ed. Colin Gordon. New York: Pantheon.

Laclau, Ernesto and Chantal Mouffe. (1985). Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics. London: Verso.

Marcus, George E. and Michael M. J. Fischer. (1986). Anthropology as Cultural Critique: An Experimental Moment in the Human Sciences. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

Said, Edward W. (1978). Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books.

Snider, Gerald M. (1993). Lumbee Indian Histories: Race, Ethnicity, and Indian Identity in the Southern U.S. New York: Cambridge.

Spivey, Michael. (2004, forthcoming). Mr. Brayboy’s School: The Struggle for Native American Identity in South Carolina. Southern Pines, NC: Carolinas Press.

Spivey, Michael. (2000). Native Americans in the Carolina Borderlands: A Critical Ethnography. Southern Pines, NC: Carolinas Press.

Marlboro,Chesterfield, Darlington County
Pee Dee Indian Tribe
4116 Redbud Road
McColl, South Carolina 29570