Spring Break in Appalachia Program Challenges Apathy on Georgetown’s Campus

By Jeremy Alps

The “Dead End” sign stands ominously as one turns down the road to the Cumberland County Association for Indian People in Fayetteville, N.C. The run-down building, surrounded by an expanse of burnt grass, was the final destination of 10 Georgetown students last week, myself included. Affiliated with the Spring Break in Appalachia program, we had come to help paint the walls of the Cumberland Association’s children’s day care center.

After spending a few days within the dusty walls if the CCAI, the “Dead End” sign seemed a bit too appropriate. The day care center had been running on donations for months, and Hal, the man unfortunate enough to be in charge of maintaining the building, didn’t even have the correct tools for the job. The children who attended the day care center were immersed in an environment of rural poverty. Among the toys they played with were the little plastic trinkets from McDonald’s Happy Meals. Half-broken and second-hand was the rule here, not the exception.

The Georgetown students on this program stayed at a youth hostel in Robeson County, which is less than an hour from Fayetteville. Robeson County has the unfortunate privilege of lying right smack in the middle of one of America’s great routes of drug trafficking, which brings no small amount of trouble to the area. It is also populated by Lumbee Indians. Prior to this trip, I don’t think I had ever seen a Native American before, and I had certainly never heard of the Lumbee tribe. Subsequently, I was fairly surprised to learn that the Lumbees were, according to the 1990 census, both the largest Indian tribe east of the Mississippi River and the ninth-largest tribe in the country, just below the Iroquois tribe of 48,000 people.

I had decided to go on the trip in the first place not out of any particular missionary zeal but rather out of the desire to learn something about Native Americans. As with many subjects, you’re likely to find a loosely-connected jumble of stereotypes, pseudo-histories and misconceptions. The Lumbees provided me with a much more meaningful education. For example, the Lumbees do not use peyote or worship the “Great Spirit;” they have been overwhelmingly Christian for hundreds of years. The don’t live on a reservation. In fact, it is rarely pointed out that Native Americans are the only ethnic group in this country for which the federal government requires proof of bloodline to qualify for membership. To let the federal government know I am a white guy, all I have to do is check off a box.

For a week, my mind was saturated with the facts and experiences of Robeson County. We met Sanford Locklear, Lumbee farmer and grassroots politician, who led a successful movement to remove the Ku Klux Klan from the area in the 1950s. I saw a pow-wow and was amazed with the ferocity and unity with which the singers beat the single drum around which they were seated. I listened to youth groups, ministers, community activists, college professors and a dozen more people, each of whom offered a unique perspective on the issues of race and class in their hometowns and in the country as a whole.

It would be safe to say that the entire trip was an eye-opener for me. I don’t think you would find many people who think that America is a perfect place. But at the same time, at Georgetown I think we often forget just how real the problems in this country are. In many ways, the Native Americans are the perfect symbol of America’s tendency to sweep its problems under the rug and pretend that everything is okay. The Native Americans are all safely tucked away in reservations, so let’s conveniently forget that tens of millions of them used to live all over the country. However, as my experience in rural North Carolina taught me, you cannot ignore someone who is right in front of your face.

The issues which were brought to the forefront of my mind during the trip are so complex that many people would just as soon throw up their hands in disdain than deal with them. We went down there, painted the walls of a day care center and built a sandbox. My inner cynic can’t help but wonder what good such a small gesture can accomplish against a system of subtly institutionalized racism and a smothering legacy of poverty. But Hal broke into tears of gratitude when he told us how much he appreciated our help. A little girl about to get into her mother’s car after an afternoon of day care called out to us across a rusty, chain-link fence: “Thanks for building us a sandbox!” I am more inclined to believe their responses than those of the cynic.

It is wide-eyed naivete to think that we can make everything better by tomorrow if we just bought the world a Coke, but I think that Georgetown students are in a unique position to seriously make a difference. Too many people at Georgetown do not realize the power they have to help, or perhaps they are unsure as to why they should. I know I felt that way two weeks ago, but now at least I know that the first step is to do something, no matter how insignificant it may seem. The easiest way to fail at something is to never even try in the first place.

Jeremy Alps is a freshman in the College.

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