Interview Outtake: Malinda Maynor

Professor Malinda Maynor Lowery is the Director of the Center for the Study of the American South at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Like me, she is an enrolled member of the Lumbee Tribe, and is an author.  She has a brand new book out called The Lumbee Indians: An American Struggle. She’s also produced a number of documentary films, including In the Light of Reverence, an account of the struggles of the Lakota in the Black Hills, the Hopi in Arizona, and the Wintu in California, all to protect their sacred sites.

Edgar: Can you share any stories of experiences where you encountered either the fetishization of Native Americans, or any illustrations of the traumatic aspects of our identity in America today?

Malinda: What comes to mind is something that happened when we were working on In the Light of Reverence, shooting in Mt. Shasta in Northern California. The film’s director was putting together a group of advisors, like environmental justice activists who had a kind of spiritual approach, or people who were deeply respectful of Native traditions without trying to appropriate them. To that end we had a dinner with this potential advisor, a white man who was quite a successful author. His book had been selected for Oprah’s book club. We had gotten up at 5am to shoot in Panther Meadow where the Winnemem Wintu have their ancient spring and where they’ve had 10,000 years’ worth of ceremonies, but which, in the last 30 or 40 years, since that harmonic convergence business in the 1960s, has been inundated by New Age people with crystals and drum circles who run around naked and all kinds of stuff considered horrific by the Natives.

At this dinner I was the only female at the table, and the youngest person at the table. I was flanked by my fellow crew members and other producers, who were all white men, but who knew me and whom I considered my allies. I had not introduced myself to this man beyond my name. He was unaware of my heritage, and frankly, he seemed uninterested in who I was.

We were having an intellectual conversation when this man said something outrageous. He said that the Native people did not know their own traditions, and that it was up to “us,” by which he meant whites, to preserve and keep alive these traditions.

You’ve had this experience, when your ancestors pull up their chairs behind you, and they’re like, “Okay, Malinda, this is your moment to say the right thing.” I kind of laid my fork down and I just said, “I don’t agree with that,” and I announced that I was Lumbee. He didn’t know what Lumbee was. Never heard of us. Thought it was Lumi from Washington State. I corrected him. He’d never heard of us.

We proceeded to have this debate because he, again, was really interested in challenging me because he was the authority, you know? In his mind, whether it was my phenotype or whether it was my age or my gender or whatever it was, I had to demonstrate that authority to him in order for us to even have the conversation. He wanted to know about my cultural authenticity and then he wanted to know about my racial authenticity. What was my blood quantum?

That was probably the first time I really had, as an adult, to give that seminar that you have to give people on Native sovereignty and federal policy and blood quantum and race and culture and all that stuff. The conversation turned far away from the Winnemem at Shasta and back towards me and where I was from and how that related to what he knew or didn’t know about actual Native people, right?

I was kind of shaken by the whole thing, and my allies spoke up at some point to challenge him also. It’s not like it wasn’t polite but it just wasn’t civil. You know that difference? When people are polite but they’re not necessarily civil? They’re actually hostile.

I was extremely tired. We had been shooting since 5 AM and the dinner was at 8 PM and I remember telling one of my crew members afterwards: “If I had looked like Pocahontas, he wouldn’t have said any of that stuff.”

To this day, I prepare myself to address questions, opinions, and statements that are 100% wrong, and that might not have come out if I matched a certain phenotype (in other words, if I looked like Pocahontas). It has taught me a lot about what Americans, especially certain elite Americans, think about race and how they categorize people based on phenotype.

Edgar: You’ve touched on the special burden we carry, in whatever sector we’re in, to constantly educate other people. Indian 101, I call it. I’m constantly being called into meetings and I get put on panels all the time to provide Indian 101 and a “Native perspective,” as if I could speak for all of us. It’s a privilege in one way, but it’s all extra (unpaid) work I have to do. There are only about 25 of us in the entire philanthropic sector, so I have no choice.

Malinda: There’s a very similar dynamic in universities. We have to do similar things and it’s on our own time, pretty much. People think it’s a privilege, like we feel privileged to be invited. No. That’s unpaid labor. And it quickly leads to burnout.

Edgar: Absolutely, this kind of extra unacknowledged labor is partly why the number of people of color and women in my sector is decreasing.


Due to time constraints, Malinda and I left off our conversation there, knowing there was tons more to talk about.  To learn more on her perspectives of being Native and Southern – read her new book!

Edgar Villanueva