Tuscarora put up fight to protect sacred site and ancestral remains at Fort Neoheroka

    Tuscarora Protesters near the Fort Neoheroka site. Photo by Gray Whitley

    by Sara Whitford

    Snow Hill, North Carolina

    (Special to News From Indian Country)

    Peaceful Occupation

    Close to two dozen Tuscaroras from North Carolina set up camp on October 29, 2006, upon a soybean field in Snow Hill, N.C. The farm land is known to be the site of the 18th century Tuscarora Fort Neoheroka.

    The “peaceful occupation” by the Tuscaroras was done in hopes of establishing protection for the site and any remains buried therein, as well as repatriation of ancestral remains that were excavated from the site in 1990.

    Fort Neoheroka was the final stronghold destroyed by colonial forces during the Tuscarora War of 1711-1713. The 1713 siege on the fort, led by Col. James Moore lasted for more than three weeks, beginning about March 1, 1713, with the final attack being launched on March 20. The Tuscarora resistance, however, continued their defense of the fort until the early morning hours of March 22, when they were finally defeated.

    At the battles end, more than 400 Tuscarora men, women and children were burned to death in the fire that destroyed the fort, around 170 were either killed outside the fort or captured with an estimated 400 and taken to South Carolina to be sold into slavery. Of the Tuscarora who had originally taken refuge within the confines of the fort, there were a number who managed to escape prior to the final siege by making use of the fort’s intricately planned underground tunnel system.

    The defeat of the Tuscarora, once the most powerful Indigenous nation in the territory of North Carolina, at Fort Neoheroka opened up North Carolina’s interior to colonial expansion and split the nation, sending surviving Tuscarora who did not perish at the fort scattering into the countrysides and swamplands, some later moving to two reservations established in eastern North Carolina to house the Tuscarora people after the war.

    Eventually, in a series of migrations north, some factions of Tuscaroras, consisting predominately of young men (commonly referred to as being of “fighting age”), went north to join the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois Confederacy) as the sixth nation. A majority of Tuscaroras stayed behind in North Carolina, the population of which consisted primarily of women, children and elders. The Tuscaroras remaining in North Carolina hid for their safety and have survived the centuries, though occasionally under other state-imposed tribal names.

    Fort Neoheroka is located on what is today a privately-owned family farm. Excavation of the fort began in 1990 and was sponsored by East Carolina University's Institute for Historical and Cultural Research in conjunction with ECU's summer field school for archaeology students. Years of digging at Neoheroka and other sites yielded boxes and boxes of Tuscarora skeletal remains, as well as personal effects.

    According to an ECU press release issued in 1995, the archaeology lab in the Old Cafeteria Building was, “lined wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling with cardboard boxes that contain the fruits of their [the archaeologists] labor. The boxes contain items numbering into the thousands.”

    The occupation by more than two dozen North Carolina Tuscaroras at Fort Neoheroka was done with the intent of bringing immediate attention to their concerns regarding the continued farming being done on the fort land by the Mewborn family.

    According to the group’s website:, there are four goals they are hoping to achieve: 1) For any farming or other ground-disturbing activities to cease immediately and for the land to be protected from further disturbances; 2) For any remains excavated from the site to be repatriated; 3) For the site to be returned to Tuscarora ownership, or to be made available in perpetuity to all Tuscarora people so that it may be used for gatherings, ceremonies or to visit and pay respects; and 4) that the Mewborn family (the land owners) be fairly compensated for the land.

    Facing arrest

    The occupation proceeded peacefully without incident until around 5:30 PM on Monday, October 30, when the Greene County Sheriff’s Department arrived at the fort site and informed the Tuscaroras that the property owner’s son, George Mewborn, III had come to his office with a magistrate order demanding that they be evacuated from the farmland immediately. If the protesters did not leave, they would face arrest.

    When interviewed, Greene County Sheriff Lemmie Smith commented that the Tuscaroras at the fort “were just the nicest people, very peaceable” and that he learned a lot in speaking with them during his multiple visits to the site. His first trip there was just to inquire about their purpose on the farm. He had received a call from the Mewborn family that people were gathered at the fort site. He made another trip up there a short time later and told them County Commissioner Chairman Mary Betty Kearney had instructed him to pass a message along to the Tuscaroras at the site.

    “[Commissioner Kearney] called me and told me to tell them to be at a meeting Nov. 2, in Snow Hill.” Organizers have indicated they were under the impression that this would be a public forum where they would be able to make their concerns known before the town and county commissioners.

    Tuscaroras who were present when the authorities came to the site have stated that both the sheriff, as well as the major who came to the site when they were evacuated did, in fact, treat them kindly and that they even expressed interest in knowing more about the Tuscarora history and the fort.

    George Mewborn, III, who had visited the site earlier in the day, however, was, according to observers, irate about the Tuscarora camp on the fort land. According to one of the protesters, “He came in there raging mad and he tore down all of our signs we had put up and told us to get off his land.” Mewborn took the protesters signs with him in his vehicle when he left the site.

    The signs taken down were not on Mewborn’s property. They were placed along the roadway of Nooherooka Road, the roadway leading to the fort site. Greene County Sheriff’s Department representative, Major Doug Stocks, informed the Tuscaroras they had the legal right to press charges against Mr. Mewborn for taking the signs since they were displayed on public property, but the organizers of the occupation declined, stating they had no intention, nor desire, to press any charges against Mewborn.

    The Town Meeting that wasn’t

    On November 2, 2006, a caravan of Tuscaroras arrived at the Greene County Museum in Snow Hill per the instruction from County Commissioner Chairman Kearney, with the understanding they had been invited to participate in a town meeting to discuss recent events relating to Fort Neoheroka.

    Instead, they were surprised to find that they were not on the agenda for the meeting, and in fact, the guest speaker for the evening was archaeologist Charles Heath, a doctoral candidate from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Heath is preparing his dissertation on the archaeological excavation by ECU.

    Among topics covered by Mr. Heath were the artifacts in the East Carolina collection from the digs at Neoheroka, as well as a potential “Discovery Trail” Tuscarora-themed tourism project being discussed for economic development in Snow Hill.

    At the close of Heath’s lecture, George Mewborn, III closed the meeting and invited everyone to refreshments. Chris Hardison and Tim Jacobs, both Tuscarora from Robeson County, N.C., who had understood they had been invited to speak at the meeting stood up and asked for the opportunity to address the crowd before everyone left their seats for refreshments.

    Mewborn responded that there would be no question and answer session. Hardison and Jacobs insisted that they be heard. As they began to speak, in turn, some of the audience members got up and quietly left the meeting room, however a majority stayed and listened to what the two had to say.

    The men explained the purpose of the Tuscaroras brief, peaceful occupation at the fort, what their wishes were for the fort, as well as the ancestral remains, and finally, they made a plea to Mewborn that his family, “please stop farming the fort land.”

    Mewborn, whose family took ownership of the farm in 1909, refused to respond to the Tuscaroras plea and stated only, “There won’t be a question and answer session tonight,” at which point he turned his back and began packing his things to leave the meeting. Earlier in the week, another Mewborn family member was quoted as saying, “When they plant the soybeans, it doesn’t go deep enough to disturb anything.”

    Jacobs took issue with the proposed Tuscarora-themed tourism enterprise that the Greene County Commissioners are currently seeking funding from the Golden LEAF foundation in order to perform a feasibility study for. “Why is it that Native people are always some kind of tourist attraction?”

    Hardison stated that at the meeting’s end, he and Jacobs were approached by a number of individuals who had heard their concerns offer their support and encouragement in the efforts to protect the fort and repatriate the remains.

    When contacted by this reporter about her call to the sheriff to invite the Tuscaroras to the meeting Nov. 2, Commissioner Chairman Kearney explained it must have been a miscommunication. She explained that she thought, perhaps, the Tuscaroras involved would be interested in hearing about the “educational” Tuscarora-themed tourism plans Greene County is considering. She also mentioned the possibility for hosting another meeting at some point in the future where the Tuscaroras (along with the public-at-large) would be given the opportunity to be heard, “We will be looking at, perhaps, setting some type of meeting so that there's a format for all the public if they have comments, but this was not the appropriate time and it was not formatted for public comments. I’m sorry if they understood that, if there was a misconception, but truthfully, the meeting had already been planned eons earlier and my only element of invitation was for them to receive information.”

    Taken by surprise by the miscommunication to the Tuscaroras about the meeting on November 2, Snow Hill Mayor Donald Davis took time to speak with Hardison and Bryan-Jacobs after the meeting. He requested an opportunity to meet with them sometime in the coming weeks to hear more about their concerns regarding Neoheroka.

    Legal Standing

    The Tuscaroras in North Carolina are in a unique situation as it pertains to being involved with decision-making on Fort Neoheroka and other Tuscarora sacred site and repatriation issues. They have been blocked from dealing directly with East Carolina University on having their ancestors remains repatriated due to NAGPRA regulations that only federally recognized Indian tribes are allowed by law to lay claim to “cultural items” (which include human remains). The Tuscaroras in New York are the only Tuscaroras recognized by federal law and have denied recognition of Tuscarora people in North Carolina.

    A petition has been made on behalf of Tuscaroras in North Carolina for the remains according to NAGPRA publication FR-DOC 06-1628. Review is currently pending.

    Pura Fe, a North Carolina Tuscarora, member of the singing group Ulali and winner of Best Female Artist at the 2006 Native American Music Awards (NAMMYs) expressed her frustration about the situation, “We have tried in the past to speak with Tuscaroras in New York about this matter. Individuals up there are in support of us and we have many friends there... and all over Iroquois country. We visit different communities and sing and dance together... many know who we are. But a couple of the chiefs from New York, choose to ignore us... they come down to East Carolina University for meetings about Neoheroka once or twice every year. Never are we invited to participate – we only hear about it through the grapevine long after the fact. They say we [in North Carolina] aren’t Tuscaroras. We are. In fact the majority of Indians in the Eastern part of the state are. We are forced to choose between a state recognized system that won't honor our treaties...our land claims our language... our ancestral history or remains.... and the true tribal names and identity is wiped from history. For me? State recognition is the death of our people. This is our fight for our ancestors.”

    What’s Next?

    The Tuscarora people in North Carolina have expressed that they are not giving up until the land is protected and the remains are repatriated. Hardison explains, “[Everything that has happened] only strengthens our resolve.” He continued, “We have to get the opinions of everyone involved on the matter, and come up with a unified strategy to accomplish our initial goals stated from the beginning.”

    Many Tuscarora people are expressing pride in the way the occupation is handled by the protesters. Jennifer Kreisberg, a North Carolina Tuscarora and member of the singing group Ulali commented, “Conflicting information is floating around about this issue. I’m sure of the facts and I urge everyone to support my people. Those who went to the land did a great job, doing it peacefully and with dignity and respect for the Mewborn family and all parties involved. I’m strongly urging everyone to sign the petition.”

    The Tuscarora group is encouraged by growing letters of support coming from Natives and Non-Natives, alike, from across the country. Hundreds of signed petitions have come in to the group’s website since it’s creation on October 30.

    Tuscaroras in North Carolina do have the support of a growing number of individuals within the Six Nations in the north and hope, especially, to be able to work with their relations at the Tuscarora Nation in New York and Canada to resolve this matter.

    The consensus among Tuscarora people is that Neoheroka is one of the most sacred sites to their people. Hardison explained, “The site is the largest mass grave of Natives in the country. It serves as a reminder to all of the descendants of what took place, and that from that point on, Tuscarora people would no longer be the same.”

    Teresa Morris, a Tuscarora from near New Bern, N.C., agrees, “The battle at Neoheroka broke the Tuscarora Nation in two. We lost close to one thousand of our own men, women and children in that battle to slaughter or slavery. After Neoheroka, everything changed.” She stressed that educating others about the history is key, “If people understand what happened here, they’ll understand the significance. There won't be any question as to whether or not it should be protected.”

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