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This obituary is courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of the American Indian. I will post more personal thoughts on Dr. Helen’s legacy soon.

Helen Scheirbeck receives her honorary Doctor of Laws degree at the 2009 spring Commencement ceremony at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Saturday (May 10). Presenting the hood is Provost Bernadette Gray-Little.


One of the Twentieth Century’s Most Significant American Indian Leaders

Washington, D.C.—Dr. Helen Maynor Scheirbeck, longtime champion of American Indian civil rights, pioneer for Indian control of their own education, and passionate advocate for the sovereignty of her Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, died Sunday night, Dec. 19, 2010. She was 75 years old. In May of 2009, just weeks before the debilitating stroke that led to her death, Helen’s 40 plus-year odyssey fighting for Indian Self-determination was recognized by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. By her side also receiving an honorary degree was anti-apartheid campaigner and Nobel Peace Prize winner Bishop Desmund Tutu.

Helen was a member of the first Board of Trustees of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. She served as the Secretary to the Board for two terms and joined the staff at the museum, where she served from 2000-2007 as Senior Advisor for Museum Programs and Scholarly Research and earlier as the Assistant Director for Public Programs.

Prior to joining the museum, Dr. Helen Scheirbeck had a long career working for the development of Indian tribal governments and communities, Indian  control of educational  institutions, and on issues related to Indian children and families.

She began her career as a staff member of the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Constitutional Rights chaired by former Senator Sam Ervin (D-North Carolina). She helped organize a Capitol Conference on Poverty in 1962, where Indian leaders advocated for Indian participation in the War on Poverty. On her recommendation, Ervin held hearings that culminated in the 1968 Indian Bill of Rights.

That same year she was named director of the Office of Indian Education in the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, where she led efforts to pass the Indian Education Act of 1975. As a member of the American Indian Policy Review Commission, she worked to craft reforms that led to the Tribally Controlled Community College Assistance Act of 1978.

“She had a hand in every major initiative in Indian education for the last 40 years,” remarked Kevin Gover, director of the museum. “Her passing is a great loss, and a reminder of what we can achieve when we believe deeply in our cause.”

As Assistant Director in the years immediately before and after the museum’s opening on the National Mall, Dr. Helen Scheirbeck established and set the course for Office of Education and its program in Cultural Arts. “Helen’s vision for education at the museum went beyond providing new perspectives on American history or correcting misconceptions about Native cultures,” says her colleague Clare Cuddy, director of the museum’s education office since 2004. “She deeply believed that the knowledge held by Native peoples, and especially the ways in which communities traditionally pass knowledge on to succeeding generations, can inform teaching models used by educators everywhere. The museum’s National Education Initiative, being launched in collaboration with Native communities, carries on her vision and will reach millions of students.”

Helen was a graduate of Berea College, Kentucky, with a B.A. in History and Political Science. She also attended Columbia University’s School of International Relations, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the University of California at Berkeley. She received her Doctorate of Educational Administration with a Public Policy emphasis from VPI-State University at Blacksburg, VA.

She was the first Indian intern to serve with the National Congress of American Indians.

In the area of children’s rights, Dr. Helen Scheirbeck served as the program director for the National Commission on the Rights of the Child and the White House Conference on Children, Youth and Families. She also worked in the private sector for the Save the Children Federation as their American Indian Nations Director. Prior to becoming the head of the Indian Head Start Program in 1991, Helen worked in North Carolina as the founding director of the North Carolina Indian Cultural Center in Lumberton.

She published and spoke extensively throughout the United States relating to American Indian rights issues, language and culture. Helen had a deep interest in cultural regeneration and enhancement and extensive knowledge of Indian cultural institutions, artists and craftsmen as well as spiritual leaders and their practices. As Senior Advisor for the office of Museum Programs at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., Dr. Helen Scheirbeck developed the subject matter which was used to plan museum exhibitions, cultural arts programs and educational materials.

Over her long career, Helen organized cultural festivals and powwows. She curated museum exhibits, conducted cultural symposia with traditional Indian leaders and scholars and organized arts and crafts cooperatives. She encouraged and developed marketing outlets for Indian artists and craftsmen. “Helen’s legacy lives on at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian,” said Howard Bass, director of the Cultural Arts Program at the museum since 2002. “She was an inspiring leader who mixed tough love and compassion. She questioned everything and listened closely, urging us to do our best to serve the interests of Indian Country and our visitors. She knew that with hard work everything was possible.”

What Helen most enjoyed was visiting Indian people and communities that she got to know through her decades of service. In Alaska she slept on the floor of Head Start centers, met with tribal leaders in their offices trying to solve one challenge or another, and spent hours working with people to found a tribal school, a Head Start program, a relief effort for Indian families stranded by floods on the Navajo Nation, and to help unrecognized tribes in Virginia and throughout the south become recognized. She not only met the movers and shakers in Washington, D.C. and in state capitals, but she worked with everyday people, building one program at a time to create Indian controlled institutions that improved the lives for all Indians.

The family is planning a memorial service for a later time and will be establishing a scholarship fund in her name.

Established in 1989, through an Act of Congress, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian is an institution of living cultures dedicated to advancing knowledge and understanding of the life, languages, literature, history and arts of the Native peoples of the Western Hemisphere. The museum includes the National Museum of the American Indian on the National Mall, the George Gustav Heye Center, a permanent exhibition and education facility in New York City, and the Cultural Resources Center, a research and collections facility in Suitland, Md. For more information about the museum, visit www.AmericanIndian.si.edu.


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Thank you to Jennifer Shelton of FemCentral: the Virtual Institute for Women, for posting my blog entry on a Native perspective on Thanksgiving.

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Thanks to Shane and his mom Teri Wall for letting me post this beautiful poem!

What was here before civilization began?

The animals that no longer walk, swim or fly?

The primitive people who knew nothing of greed, but knew to depend on and help each other for survival.

The lake ripples with lost memories, long forgotten emotions of kindness and compassion.

While the rock I sit on are stained with the blood of my ancestors, my people.

The ones who knew how to survive without destruction.

They are gone now; some remain scattered to the wind.

But each stone, each tree, each animal that still walks this planet remembers them, the lost ones, and what they taught.

For now I know what was here before civilization began and through these memories and whispers of everything around me, I have my answer.

But it is something that must not be told, it must be realized, then you will understand the music of the flute and drums, the language of the earth.

Shane Kinney
October 5th, 2010
Age 17 1/2

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Oxendine, war hero, dies
by Johna Strickland

Tom Oxendine, left, a Pembroke native, flew combat missions for the Navy during World War II. He received the Distinguished Flying Cross for rescuing a downed airman.
PEMBROKE — Thomas Oxendine, the Pembroke native known as “Tom-boy” who would buzz Robeson County in his naval jet and the first American Indian to complete Navy flight school, died Thursday. He was 87.

Oxendine died at his Arlington, Va., due to complications related to his age, according to Joe Oxendine, his brother and the former chancellor of The University of North Carolina at Pembroke.

The funeral will be 2:30 p.m. Monday at Pembroke Berea Baptist Church. Burial will follow in the Sandcutt Cemetery. The visitation will be from 7 to 9 p.m. Sunday at Locklear and Son Funeral Home.

Although Oxendine left Robeson County decades ago, he discovered a passion for flying at the Lumberton airport in the 1940s. That led him to the Navy; service in World War II, the Korean war and (more…)

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The American Indian Center at UNC-Chapel Hill is sponsoring a fun and casual book launch party for LUMBEE INDIANS IN THE JIM CROW SOUTH. If you’re a Facebook member you can see the invitation here:


But here are the details:

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Bulls Head Book Store
UNC Student Stores

4:30pm – 6:30pm
UNC American Indian Center
Abernethy Hall
Special Entertainment by Willie Lowery

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Main Street, Carolina is a free, open-source, web-based digital history toolkit designed for local libraries, schools, museums, preservation and local history societies, and other community
organizations across N.C. to preserve, document, and interpret their history, as reflected in the growth and development of their downtowns in the first decades of the twentieth century (1896-1922). It provides organizational users with a flexible, user-friendly digital platform on which they can add a wide variety of “local” data: historical and contemporary photographs, postcards, newspaper ads and articles, architectural drawings, historical commentary, family papers, and audio and video files-all keyed to and layered on digitized historic maps.


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Listen in!

A fascinating radio program airs today on Tribal Sovereignty that includes Cedric Woods, a member of the Lumbee Tribe. If you miss it, you can download the podcast from www.indigenouspolitics.com

Radio Program on WESU, Middletown, CT
Tuesdays 4-5 PM EST
Listen Online While the Show Airs: http://www.wesufm.org

Tribal Sovereignty & Indigenous Rights – Part I
On Tuesday, March 9, 2010, join your host, J. Kehaulani Kauanui, for an episode of “Indigenous Politics” that features two talks from a recent panel on tribal sovereignty held at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center. Listeners will hear:
John Echohawk (Pawnee) give a legal and historical overview of tribal sovereignty based on his work at the Native American Rights Fund; and J. Cedric Woods (Lumbee) discuss cultural sovereignty, and what sovereignty still means to tribes who have either been denied federal recognition, not received it, or been “terminated.” (more…)

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