GREENVILLE, North Carolina — Members of three Native American tribes came to Greenville on February 15 to celebrate the launch of a community reading program focusing on the writing of the nation’s first Native American Poet Laureate.
Representatives of the Lumbee, Haliwa-Saponi and Waccamaw-Siouan tribes were part of East Carolina University’s launch celebration for the National Endowment for the Arts program, Big Read-Greenville. The six-week shared reading experience, which will focus on Joy Harjo’s bestselling poetry collection “An American Sunrise,” is designed to spark conversation and build connections within the community.
Tammy Maynor, administrator of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, told more than 60 people gathered at Five Points Plaza that inviting tribal leaders to participate in the event speaks volumes about the university’s desire to be inclusive.
“To invite us to be here today, to remind us that the American Indian is strong and alive in North Carolina, we really appreciate that,” she said. “This is a meaningful consultation.”
The event was the first of more than a dozen planned in conjunction with Big Read-Greenville ahead of a visit next month from Harjo, who recently became the second American Poet Laureate to be nominated for a third term.
ECU is among 61 recipients nationwide to receive a share of more than $1 million in NEA funding to support Big Read projects in the 2021-22 academic year. The university, which received a $20,000 grant, is one of three recipients in North Carolina to be selected for matching grants awarded in 28 states for community-wide reading programs designed around a single Big Read title. The University of North Carolina at Wilmington is also participating and will focus on “The House on Mango Street” by Sandra Cisneros.
As part of the program, 500 free copies of “An American Sunrise” will be distributed at various events, at the Sheppard Memorial Library, the Pitt County Council on Aging and the Ledonia Wright Cultural Center.
Sheppard Library Director Greg Needham told university and community leaders gathered for the celebration that shared reading “is not just for little kids”.
“Adults reading something together and sharing the experience is a very powerful thing,” he said.
Allison S. Danell, dean of ECU’s Thomas Hariot College of Arts and Sciences, said Harjo’s book offers readers a chance to learn more about the poetry, history and lives of Indigenous peoples in the South East.
“Big Read-Greenville allows us to create shared experiences that enrich our lives, encourage openness, conversation, and most importantly, understanding of the world around us,” she said. “I also think this grant is really a testament to the collaboration that we have, the spirit that we have at ECU.”
Chancellor Philip Rogers said the event aligns with the university’s mission to be a model for student success, public service and regional transformation. Mentioning the November 2021 dedication of a space on campus honoring Indigenous peoples, he said Native American history is important to the region.
“I think we’re all very proud that the Native American population in North Carolina is 120,000 strong,” Rogers said. “It’s the largest on the East Coast right here in North Carolina and offers many important contributions to our community and our history.”
“An American Sunrise,” Harjo’s eighth collection of poems, focuses on the displacement of his ancestors in 1830 as a result of the Indian Removal Act.
“History will always find you and wrap you in its thousand arms,” the 70-year-old poet, a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, writes in “Break My Heart,” one of more than four dozen poems in the collection.
Pamela Young-Jacobs, president of the Waccamaw-Siouan tribe, shared one of her own poems during the Big Read event.
“As we live our lives guided by the great spirit, everything we touch must be improved,” she read in her poem “Making a Difference,” which was included in “Feeding the Ancient Fires” by Marijo Moore in 1999.
Jamie K. Oxendine, tribal administrator of the Haliwa-Saponi Tribe, said that while much Native American wisdom has been preserved through oral tradition, the “talking leaves” (books) also have their significance.
“In every culture, books are very important in different ways,” he said. “For them, they are the elders of this culture.”
The next event scheduled for Big Read-Greenville is a screening of the film “Searching for Sequoyah,” featuring filmmaker Leanne Howe (Choctaw) and a community panel and Q&A, from 6-8:30 p.m. on February 25. at the Greenville Museum of Art, 802 Evans St. A full calendar of events is available at english.ecu.edu/bigread/events.