The Legend of Henry Berry Lowry: Strike at the Wind and the Lumbee Indians of North Carolina.
Opening night of Strike at the Wind was a major success. The play even attracted attention from several local and state newspapers. In fact, Strike became, according to the Institute of Outdoor Drama in Chapel Hill, the most successful new outdoor play in the nation in 1976 ("Strike at the Wind Continues" 6). During the premier season, more than 17,000 people attended the production, which ran Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights from July 1 until August 15. Although authored by white playwright Randolph Umberger, Strike at the Wind was a mostly Native American production. Moreover, the play became both a source of local pride and a way for the Lumbees to assert their Indian cultural and racial identity to outsiders.
The Indians of Robeson County
In 1500, just prior to European contact, approximately 50,000 Native Americans lived within the boundaries of what would eventually become North Carolina. These original inhabitants can broadly be divided into three language groups. The Algonkian peoples, such as the Hatteras and the Pamlicos, lived along the coast. The Iroquoian-speaking tribes included the Tuscaroras and Meherrins, both of whom occupied the land just west of the Algonkians, near the fall lines of the region's numerous small rivers, and the Cherokees, who resided in the mountains. The Siouan-speakers, such as the Waccamaws, Saponis, and Occaneechis, lived in the central Piedmont section, above the fall lines, and along the Cape Fear River down to what is today Wilmington, North Carolina.
In the late sixteenth century, the English, latecomers to American exploration and colonization, first tried to settle in the region. Although their initial attempt, Sir Walter Raleigh's ill-fated Lost Colony, ultimately failed, by the mid- 1600s English colonists were filtering down into northeastern Carolina from the Chesapeake Bay area. Following the arrival of the new settlers, disease, warfare, and the Indian slave trade decimated the Native American population in eastern North Carolina in the late 1600s and early 1700s. After the end of the Tuscarora War in 1713, a major colonial war involving more than just the Tuscaroras, many of the surviving American Indians left the region. Others coalesced into small inter-tribal settlements in isolated lands away from the invading colonists. In the 1730s, a group of Scottish immigrants "discovered" one of these groups living along the Lumber River in the southeastern part of North Carolina. Although the settlement was clearly an "Indian" community, the people spoke English. Moreover, some of them had European features, such as blond hair, and English names, evidence of previous interaction between Native Americans and Europeans (Blu 36-44).
For the next one hundred years, the Indian community along the Lumber River--an area that would eventually become Robeson County-- continued to remain fairly isolated, and the Indians who lived there eked out a meager existence on small self-sufficient farms. They adopted Christianity, patrilineality, and other elements of European culture. Although they no longer had a specific tribal heritage or spoke a native language, they maintained their identity as Indians, the descendants of North Carolina's first inhabitants. For the most part, they enjoyed many of the same legal and political rights as poor whites. This changed, however, in the 1830s. In the wake of Nat Turner's rebellion, many white North Carolinians feared the possibility of a large slave uprising and subsequent racial war. Consequently, the state government stripped all "free persons of color" of the right to vote, own arms, and serve on juries. For legal purposes, the North Carolina General Assembly classified all Indians, including those along the Lumber River, as "free persons of color" (Evans, "North Carolina Lumbees" 49-71).
The Legend of Henry Berry Lowry
The outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 marked an important turning point in the history of the Indians of Robeson County. Because they were classified as "free persons of color," the local Indians could not own guns and therefore could not serve in the Confederate Army. But that did not keep the North Carolina government from using Native Americans to help in the war effort. The Home Guard, a local militia charged with keeping order during the war, conscripted Indians in southeastern North Carolina as labor, mostly to help build Fort Fisher, a large fort at the mouth of the Cape Fear River designed to protect the port city of Wilmington. Long working hours, poor supplies, and disease made the work-camps almost as deadly as military service. As the war dragged on, many Indians began to flee the camps and hide out in the swamps of southeastern North Carolina. Some returned to their homes, where their wives and children were also struggling to get by during the lean years of the war.
In 1864 Henry Berry Lowry, who was sixteen at the time, allegedly stole a hog from the plantation of a prominent white landholder in Robeson County to help feed his large Native American family. (2) The planter sent a local member of the Home Guard, James Brantley Harris, to the Lowry house to investigate. In retrospect, Harris was a poor choice. Henry and other members of his family believed that Harris had earlier killed two of their relatives after they had tried to run away rather than be conscripted as slave labor. Shortly after visiting the Lowry household, Harris was murdered. Later, locals found the dead body of the white planter who had charged the Lowry family with theft. Authorities immediately suspected the Lowry boys. Henry and a few of his brothers--he had nine of them--subsequently stole guns and ammunition from the courthouse in nearby Lumberton and took refuge in the swamps, raiding local plantations for supplies in order to survive. In retaliation, the Home Guard arrested Henry's father, Allen, and one of Henry's brothers, William, for allegedly stealing private property. They held a quick trial and executed both Allen and William. Naturally, the murder of his brother and father infuriated Henry, who continued to evade capture and live in the swamps of Robeson County. The number of runaways grew as Henry accepted slaves and escaped Union soldiers from the Confederate prisoner-of-war camp in Florence, South Carolina, into his "gang." The Home Guard stepped up its effort to catch the gang, but Henry, who knew the area as well as anyone, kept escaping. Twice, local officials managed to capture Lowry, but both times he escaped prior to his trial (Evans, To Die Game 37-45, 72-76).
The Indians of Robeson County hoped that their situation would improve after the Union's victory in April of 1865. After all, they had helped Northern POWs avoid recapture. Unfortunately, the Reconstruction Republican government in North Carolina was not very interested in the predicament of Native Americans. In fact, federal officials helped state officials hunt Lowry and his gang. Likewise, Henry continued to hide out in the swamps and raid local farms. A mythology quickly arose around the "Swamp Outlaw." According to oral tradition, Henry became a larger than life figure, a crack shot, a master of disguise, an escape artist who made the local authorities look bumbling and inept. According to one oft-repeated chapter, Henry dressed up like a member of the Home Guard and led his own pursuers on a wild-goose chase through the swamps, while the rest of his gang went the other direction, before disappearing once again into the Carolina mist. During the "Battle of Wire Grass Landing," Lowry, according to legend, single-handedly repelled eighteen attackers. Moreover, he stole only from wealthy whites, always treated his victims with respect (unless of course they did not treat Indians with the same respect) and shared the bounty with poor families, both Indian and non-Indian, a practice that eventually earned Henry another nickname, the Indian Robin Hood (Robeson County Historical Drama 1977).
By the turn of the decade, local officials' inability to capture Lowry had become an embarrassment. The state of North Carolina tried to help by placing a $12,000 "dead or alive" bounty on him. Attracted by what was an exorbitant sum of money at that time, bounty hunters poured into eastern North Carolina, but the local Robeson Indian community, immune to the allure of the bounty, kept tabs on the pursuers and alerted Lowry when they were getting close. In July of 1871, the sheriff, adopting a new strategy, ordered his men to arrest the wives of the known members of the gang. Lowry himself had earlier married a local part-Indian woman, Rhoda Strong, who lived in a cabin in Robeson. The women would be released, the sheriff said, when the members of the Lowry Gang surrendered. But this extreme, and legally questionable, tactic did not work. After learning about the hostages, Lowry sent a note to the sheriff demanding that their "wives who were arrested a few days ago, and placed in jail, be released to come home to their families by Monday Morning, and if not, the Bloodiest times will be here that ever was before--the life of every man will be in jeopardy" (Letter from Henry B. Lowry, Stephen Lowry, Andrew Strong, and Boss Strong to Sheriff of Robeson County, 14 July 1871, Wishart Family Papers, Box 1, Folder 3). The sheriff released Rhoda and the other women. The plan had backfired, and Lowry's already positive image was actually enhanced by his willingness to stand up for the wives of his men. Moreover, the behavior of the sheriff appeared to be more dishonorable than anything Lowry had done.
In February of 1872, Lowry and his men robbed a store in Lumberton. In addition to stealing several hundred dollars worth of supplies, they also broke into a safe that held more than $20,000 in cash. No one ever saw Henry Berry Lowry again. Over the next two years, the other members of the Lowry gang either disappeared or were captured. The fate of Henry Berry Lowry remained a historical mystery, though there are several competing versions. One maintains that Lowry dressed up as a federal soldier, rode a train out of North Carolina, and lived a long and prosperous life somewhere in the American West. Occasionally, Lowry would visit Robeson County, anonymously of course. Another, less romantic account claims that Henry accidentally shot himself and is buried somewhere in Robeson County. Most likely, the truth will never be known. But Lowry became a folk-hero for the local Native Americans, an Indian "trickster" who stood up to the "white power structure" and won (Evans, To Die Game 220-52).
By the time Henry Berry Lowry disappeared, Reconstruction in North Carolina had come to an end, and conservative whites had "redeemed" the state government. In the late 1800s, the North Carolina General Assembly began passing laws that deprived non-whites of their political and legal rights. For example, the use of new literacy tests and poll taxes in the early 1900s disfranchised most non-whites in North Carolina. Moreover, the state government passed a series of "Jim Crow" laws that allowed for only two racial categories, "white" and "colored." But in southeastern North Carolina, especially in Robeson County, more than two racial groups existed. The Indians living in Robeson saw this biracial system as an attack on their cultural and racial heritage. Consequently, they challenged this system by establishing a third category in the county. Barred from white schools, Robeson Indians refused to attend "colored" schools; instead they built their own, eventually persuading state authorities to incorporate them into the North Carolina public school system. Therefore, in Robeson County, the state and local government divided citizens tri-racially--white, colored, and Indian. Likewise, Native Americans in Robeson County built and maintained their own churches and formed membership committees to make sure that only Native Americans attended their schools and churches. Any student who wished to attend an Indian school or any family who wanted to join an Indian church first had to apply to these committees and prove their identity as Native Americans. During the first few decades of the twentieth century, Indian schools and churches in Robeson County became outward markers of a separate and unique cultural identity (Oakley 22-30).
The Great Depression devastated Indian farmers in Robeson County, as it did other small farmers across the country. Many who owned land lost it, while tenant farmers and sharecroppers lost their jobs. A group of Robeson Indians went to Washington, D.C., to petition the federal government for official recognition, which would mean financial assistance. Though sympathetic to their situation, the Office of Indian Affairs did not recognize the Robeson Indians but did offer some financial assistance through the Resettlement Administration and the Farm Security Administration (Anderson 39-58).
The federal government also financed the production of a local historical pageant to celebrate the history and heritage of the Indians in Robeson County. Ella C. Deloria, a Yankton-Sioux, was hired to write and direct the play. Born on a reservation in South Dakota in 1889, Deloria studied ethnology and anthropology under the noted scholar Franz Boas at Columbia University. She is probably best known for her novel Waterlily, an examination of Sioux kinship and culture. Deloria's play, entitled The Life-Story of a People, broadly traced the history of the Indians of Robeson County, from their origins all the way to the twentieth century. Her script stressed the possible connection between the Robeson Indians and Raleigh's Lost Colony of 1587, a theoretical connection that had become a real source of pride in the county. According to oral tradition, the survivors of the colony moved inland and settled with local Indians, a speculation which explained why some had European physical characteristics. Moreover, many of the English surnames common among the Native Americans of Robeson County were very similar to those of several members of the Lost Colony (Blu 85).
Life-Story was scheduled to premier in December of 1940. The one-hundred-and-fifty-member cast consisted mostly of local residents, both Indians and whites, and college students. The play would be performed in the gymnasium of Pembroke State College, an all-Indian public university in Robeson County. The choice of venue was easy to make. Dating all the way back to its origin as a normal school at the turn of the century, the college was a symbol of Indian pride and unity in the county. Moreover, the school's hometown, Pembroke, which had a very large Indian population, was a cultural, economic, and political center for the local Native American community. On December 5, 1940, more than six hundred people packed the gym to watch the play. The two-hour production of Life-Story was a hit. The play ran three nights and won positive reviews from several newspapers. The following year, Life-Story ran again in December, but production was subsequently shut down because of World War II (Oakley 52-53).
The Second World War ignited a series of changes in southeastern North Carolina that also affected Robeson Native Americans. Prior to the war, most people in Robeson County, and in the state, lived and worked on small farms and the Indian communities in Robeson were fairly self-contained. But after the war, the economy of eastern North Carolina began to change. Large corporate farms swallowed up smaller ones as capital-intensive agribusiness replaced the family farm as the backbone of North Carolina agriculture. This change pushed many small farmers into the new factories and mills that were sprouting up across the state. North Carolina was quickly becoming a manufacturing state, and workers would have to adapt. In Robeson County, Native Americans, who previously worked and lived primarily within their own tight-knit communities, began to interact more frequently with outsiders.
The war also increased Native American political activism in Robeson County. Many local Indians served in the war, both as draftees and enlistees. Although the military was racially segregated, Native Americans served alongside whites. The experience influenced many Indians, who became used to being treated as social equals. Veterans returned to Robeson after the war more worldly and more demanding of political equality. After all, they had supposedly been fighting for democracy and freedom overseas, but what about their own home county? In the 1950s, Native Americans in Robeson became much more aggressive in pushing for change, and veterans were often at the forefront of this new assertiveness (Oakley 58-61).
This new spirit of activism led directly to the adoption of a new name. By the twentieth century, the Indians in Robeson County had been known by several different names. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, they were called the Croatans, other times the Siouans of Robeson County, the Cherokees of Robeson County, or simply the Indians of Robeson County. None of these names particularly pleased the local Native American community, nor were they very historically accurate. In the 1950s, D.F. Lowry formed the Lumbee Brotherhood, adapting the name from the river that ran through the heart of Robeson County. Lowry, and others, argued that the Robeson Indians were the descendants of several different indigenous groups, such as the Tuscaroras, the Hatteras, the Cheraws, and others. Therefore, they should adopt a geographical tribal name that represented the entire community. In 1952, the Robeson Indians overwhelmingly voted to adopt the tribal name Lumbee, and in 1953, the state of North Carolina officially recognized them as the Lumbee Indians of Robeson County (Blu 41, 86-87).
An Outdoor Drama
On May 22, 1968, a small group of prominent local citizens met at a motel in Robeson County to discuss the possibility of establishing a new historical pageant based on Lumbee history. The following month, the tri-racial group officially founded the Robeson County Historical Drama, Inc. (RCHD). The RCHD elected Hector McLean, a white man, to be the first chairman. McLean and the other members immediately began making plans for a new historical drama to be produced somewhere in the county.
Several interrelated events came together in the 1960s to make a new historical drama in Robeson County both feasible and desirable. First, the Lumbees were worried that they were going to lose one of their most important concrete markers of a separate identity. In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that school segregation based on race was unconstitutional. Across the country African American activists hailed the decision as a major step in the modern Civil Rights Movement. In Robeson County, however, the Lumbees saw the Brown decision as a threat to their Indian-only schools. Since the 1880s, Native Americans had worked hard to establish their own school system in Robeson County. Even though the schools were technically public schools, Indians had put a lot of their own sweat and money into their construction and maintenance. Moreover, the Lumbees saw the decision as an attack on their identity. In Lumbee communities, schools were not merely educational institutions but external markers of cultural identity and sources of local Indian pride and unity. In fact, attending an Indian-only school defined one as a Lumbee (Sider 126-27).
North Carolina, like most other Southern states, initially fought the Brown decision, but by the mid 1960s it was becoming clear that real school integration was forthcoming. Consequently, the Lumbees challenged forced school integration by filing lawsuits that argued that they, unlike African Americans, wanted to keep their Indian-only public schools. Some even organized protests in the county to fight integration. In the summer of 1971, federal authorities ordered the integration of Prospect School, which had previously been for Native Americans only. When the school opened in August, a group of angry parents, some carrying weapons, prevented any non-Indian from entering the school building. Similar protests occurred elsewhere. Along with seeing integration as a threat to their identity, some Lumbee parents also worried that their children would be teased in their new schools, where they might constitute a small minority of the enrollment. The Lumbees ultimately lost their lawsuits, however, and all Indian-only schools in Robeson were either closed or integrated (Sider 126-27).
Second, in the 1960s, many Americans became increasingly interested in American Indian cukure and history. During the turbulent era of the African American Civil Rights Movement and an escalating war in Vietnam, Native Americans, so obscured in previous decades, suddenly became living symbols of government oppression and corruption. The Red Power movement, led by groups like the American Indian Movement, focused national attention on the injustices suffered by American Indians. Native American writers sold millions of books and won major literary prizes. In 1969, for example, Kiowa novelist N. Scott Momaday won a Pulitzer prize for House Made of Dawn. Non-fiction books on Indian history, such as Vine Deloria, Jr.'s Custer Died for Your Sins, also sold well. In Hollywood films, Indians suddenly became the sympathetic victims of imperialism and exploitation, rather than the skulking savage murderers of the Westerns produced in the 1940s and 1950s. On college campuses, non-Indian youth began to wear Native American clothing and jewelry. In short, in the late 1960s, Native American culture actually became fashionable. A new historical pageant in Robeson could take advantage of this renewed interest in all things Indian.
And finally, the members of the RCHD were influenced by the success of two other historical dramas in North Carolina, each of which featured Native Americans, though in varying degrees of importance. On the Outer Banks, noted playwright Paul Green's The Lost Colony was performed in Manteo each summer. The play, which told the story of Raleigh's 1587 colony, included the Indian characters Manteo and Wanchese. On the Qualla reservation in western North Carolina, the Eastern Band of Cherokees annually staged a production of Unto These Hills, an outdoor play that dramatized the story of Tsali. According to legend, Tsali, a Cherokee man, was involved in the deaths of two federal soldiers during the process of forced removal in the 1830s. Tsali and the other Cherokees involved in the incident avoided capture and hid in the mountains of western North Carolina. General Winfield Scott, who was in charge of removing the Cherokees to the West, was tired of hunting refugees, so he sent word that if Tsali turned himself in, the rest of the Cherokees in the mountains could stay. When he heard the offer, Tsali bravely surrendered and was executed, sacrificing his life so that the rest of his people could avoid the "Trail of Tears." Those who stayed are the ancestors of today's Eastern Band of Cherokees in western North Carolina. Tsali's story was truly dramatic, if not historically accurate. Both Unto These Hills and The Lost Colony were financially successful. Each summer, tens of thousands of tourists, many of them from other states, visited the beaches of the Outer Banks, just a few miles from Manteo. Likewise, Unto These Hills drew its audience from sight-seers visiting the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which is adjacent to the Cherokee reservation in western North Carolina.
In Robeson County, supporters hoped that a new historical drama would do two things. First, it might provide a public venue for the Lumbees to celebrate and exhibit their Indian heritage. The North Carolina General Assembly officially recognized the Native Americans of Robeson County as the Lumbees in 1953. Organized in 1971, the North Carolina Commission of Indian Affairs, a part of the state Department of Administration, also acknowledged the Lumbees as an Indian tribe and offered a variety of programs and services for them. But the federal government had given the Lumbees only limited recognition. In 1956, the Congress recognized the Indians of Robeson County as Lumbees, but the act also explicitly prevented them from participating in any programs for Native Americans. Unfamiliar with Native American history in eastern North Carolina, many critics, including federal officials and other Indians, questioned Lumbee tribal identity. Perhaps a new historical drama could educate others about Lumbee history. Second, a new play might attract tourists, and their money, to Robeson, one of the poorest counties in North Carolina. A historical drama could draw audiences locally, from both the Fayetteville area, the closest city, and from the growing Triangle area of Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill, about one hundreds miles away. But the RCHD also hoped to attract outsiders, especially tourists driving up and down 1-95, which ran through Robeson County and which millions of motorists used to drive from the Northeast to Florida. Many of them divided their trip by spending the night somewhere in North Carolina (Bledsoe 1).
Strike at the Wind
At first, the members of the RCHD considered simply reviving The Life-Story of a People, which focused on the Lost Colony connection. The play would once again be staged in the gym at the local college, which was now racially integrated and part of the University of North Carolina system. But the group soon discarded this idea in favor of a new outdoor drama, one that would be a sequel to The Lost Colony. They initially asked Paul Green to write the play. Green, who had written an earlier play about Lowry, declined but suggested Randolph Umberger, a young playwright and a drama professor at North Carolina Central University in Durham. Umberger, who had written his doctoral dissertation at Tulane University on Unto These Hills, signed on in 1970 and began working on the script.
Umberger and the members of the RCHD opted to focus the new drama on the life of the outlaw Henry Berry Lowry. Given the political and social atmosphere of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the story of a strong Native American rebel who stood up to a corrupt and racist government would appeal, they hoped, both to local Lumbees and to outsiders. Moreover, in recent years, Lowry's reputation and image as a Lumbee folk hero had dramatically increased. To many Lumbees, Henry symbolized independence, courage, autonomy, and pride. In some ways, he was becoming a symbolic "Founding Father" of the Lumbee people. In the early 1970s, the Lumbees began awarding the Henry Berry Lowry Memorial' Award to the local Indian man or woman who had most exhibited the virtues of the "Indian Robin Hood" (Dial and Eliades 86). In 1973, many Lumbees proudly wore "Henry Berry Lowry Lives Forever" buttons during their annual Homecoming, a week-long celebration of Lumbee pride held each year in early July. After a couple of rewrites, in August of 1972 the RCHD officially accepted Umberger's script, which was titled Strike at the Wind, and began planning to open the production. Umberger carefully researched the topic, but as with any historical play, he had to dramatize certain elements. "Not everyone will agree with my verdict, but then, no two people living during Henry's own lifetime agreed about him or his importance," Umberger said in a 1976 interview; "One must always remember that history is not theatre. There is not one exciting play in the world that is actual as a history book--and vice versa" (Robeson County Historical Drama 1977).
Strike was not the first attempt to dramatize the life of Henry Berry Lowry. In fact, there had been at least six previous literary versions of the events surrounding his legend, three of them plays. (3) In 1920, Paul Green wrote Last of the Lowries. In 1924, William Normet Cox authored The Scuffletown Outlaws, while Clare Johnson Marley penned Swamp Outlaw in 1939. In 1940, John Paul Lucas, Jr., and Bailey T. Groome co-authored The King of Scuffletown, a romantic novel in the spirit and tradition of Walter Scott and James Fenimore Cooper (Reising 87-103). Umberger's script, however, differed from the previous literary versions of Lowry's life. Influenced by both local events such as the fight over Indian schools and national events such as the Vietnam War and the broader Civil Rights Movement, Umberger emphasized themes that would appeal to a wide audience, not just to Native Americans. In Strike, Lowry reluctantly becomes an outlaw, forced into a violent life of crime by the injustices committed by the Home Guard, especially the execution of his father and brother. Umberger also left Lowry's fate unknown. In previous fictionalized accounts, the outlaw was either captured or killed. In those versions, Lowry was a tragic figure who tried to fight injustice but ultimately failed. But in Strike Lowry vanishes, an ending that is both historically accurate and suggests that the hero is timeless. Consequently, the Henry Berry Lowry that emerges in Umberger's script is a universal hero. According to Reising, the play "provides a 'Henry Bear' of hope, an idealist of mixed blood created to inspire faith in and from people of all races" (Reising 99). Near the end of the play, the narrator, looking back at the life of Lowry, described the significance of the Lumbee hero: "Upon this ground Henry Berry Lowry fought for better or for worse. His time was a long time coming, but love is the second discovery of fire. And to each of you, we stretch forth our hand. May we, from this moment on, together affirm that there shall never be another time when to ask for the dignity of any man is to strike in vain at the wind" (qtd. in Warren 8).
The RCHD next hired local Lumbee musician Willie French Lowery, a distant relative of Henry, to compose the music for the production. Lowery had already become well known both locally and nationally as a musician and song-writer, touring with such acts as the Allman Brothers Band and Brooklyn Bridge. He had also won the Hinda Honigman Cup, given by the North Carolina Federation of Music Clubs, for his album Proud to be a Lumbee. While composing the original music for the new play, Lowery was conscious of Lumbee Indian culture and heritage, but he also did not want to rely on stereotypes of what constitutes Native American music. "I wanted square-dancing, folk kind of music, happy music," Lowery told a reporter in 1976, "not a lot of drums" (Munger 3).
The script itself is divided into two acts. Act one opens in 1864 at a Confederate work camp near Wilmington, North Carolina. The rest of the action occurs mostly in either Lumberton, the major "white" town in Robeson, or near Scuffletown (modern-day Pembroke), where many Native Americans lived. There are nineteen scenes, a prologue, and a brief epilogue. During the play, an elderly Indian man, known simply as "Leader," acts as a narrator, introducing and explaining many of the scenes to a young boy. The play also includes fifteen musical numbers, most Willie Lowery originals, including "The Ballad of Henry Bear." The play closes with the entire cast singing "Battle Hymn of the Republic" (Robeson County Historical Drama 1976).
Although the script and score were finished, the RCHD faced other obstacles before opening the production. Most Lumbees were behind the idea in principle, but there was concern in the community over control of the play and the content. Some worried that outsiders and whites would dominate the production. After all, the RCHD was a tri-racial organization with a white chairman. And most of all, critics were horrified by the thought of a white actor portraying their hero. "Henry Berry Lowry is the catalyst, the passion, the heart of the Indian of Robeson County today," one Native American columnist wrote in a local newspaper; "It is important that an Indian play the role of Henry Berry Lowry. Andy Griffith is not suited for the role of Henry Berry Lowry, an Indian's Indian" (Barton 56). Given the historical tendency of Hollywood to cast non-Indians in Indian roles for many motion pictures and television shows, the concern was understandable.
The RCHD also faced financial problems. In order to pay for the production, the RCHD would have to raise more than $100,000 to build an amphitheater and finance the play. In 1974, Adolph Dial, a well-known Lumbee writer and chairman of American Indian Studies at Pembroke State University (formerly Pembroke State College and known today as the University of North Carolina, Pembroke) replaced Hector McLean as chairman of the RCHD. Dial spurred the fund-raising effort when he personally pledged $1,000 and encouraged several of his friends to do the same. During the summer of 1975, the RCHD also embarked on a major fund-raising campaign ("Strike At the Wind Ends Its Premier Season" 4). The Lumbee Regional Development Administration helped with administrative costs; the producers of The Lost Colony donated $2,500 worth of used lighting equipment; the Robeson County Board of Commissioners kicked in $25,000, the single largest contribution; and individuals in the community pledged to help defer costs by donating their time and skills to help with set construction and costume design. Local Lumbee students even organized car washes. Working together, the community raised the necessary funds (Robeson County Historical Drama 1976).
In the fall of 1975, the RCHD hired a new general manager, Rock Kershaw, to oversee all of the details. The organization also chose a director, Arthur McDonald, who was a faculty member at St. Andrews Presbyterian College in Laurinburg, and an experienced director of more than thirty productions. Representatives of the RCHD also began looking for a location for the new amphitheater. They leased two acres of land from Riverside Country Club near the Lumber River just outside of Pembroke on Highway 74. The site, overlooking water, was supposedly the location of one of Henry's hideouts, perhaps a trivial detail but one that emphasized the connection between Lowry and the modern Lumbees. Construction began on Lakeside Amphitheater in early 1976 (Robeson County Historical Drama 1976).
In the spring, Kershaw, McDonald, and the RCHD began gearing up for the first season. Budgeting $5,000 for promotion, the RCHD bought time on local television and radio stations, printed 25,000 brochures, took out advertisements in the local newspapers, and leased billboards on 1-95 (Witt 34-39). McDonald and Kershaw scheduled open auditions in March. More than one hundred and fifty locals tried out for one of the sixty-five parts in the play. Derek Lowery, a native of Robeson and a distant relative of Henry, won the lead, and Hope St. Pierre, a non-Indian local, was cast as Rhoda Strong, the outlaw's young wife. Most who did not get cast agreed to help with the production and promotion (Robeson County Historical Drama 1976).
The play opened successfully on the first night of July in 1976. More than eight hundred and fifty people paid ten dollars each to see the World Premier of Strike at the Wind. The opening was scheduled to coincide with the annual Homecoming. The American Revolution Bicentennial Administration even recognized the play as part of the 1976 two-hundred-year anniversary celebration of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, though the play's historical connection to the American Revolution was somewhat mysterious, except for the fact that it was opening in early July. For subsequent shows, reserved seats would cost four dollars, while general admission was three and a half. The show started at 8:30 p.m. and ran three nights a week for seven weeks. After opening promisingly, the first season of Strike at the Wind also ended well. In August, the final six performances sold out. At the last show, box-office employees turned away many potential customers. "The play just snowballed, I never expected anything like this," General Manager Rock Kershaw told a reporter; "We hated to turn people away, but there was nothing else we could do" ("Strike at the Wind Ends Its Premier Season" 4). Strike was produced twenty-one times in the summer of 1976, and approximately 18,000 people attended the play, an average of about eight hundred and sixty per production ("Strike at the Wind Continues 2nd Season" 6).
Given the success of the previous year, the second season of Strike at the Wind opened with much anticipation in late June of 1977. Kershaw and McDonald were retained as General Manager and Director, respectively. Twenty-five actors also returned to reprise their roles, while forty new ones, again mostly locals, were chosen to fill out the cast. Melton Lowry, a native of Pembroke and a theater student at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, was cast in the lead role, while Hope St. Pierre once again played Rhoda. As opening night approached, the community and the organizers grew excited. "We expect 25,000 persons this year," Rock Kershaw told a local reporter in June of 1977, "and if opening night rehearsal is any indication of this year's show, the season is going to be dynamite" ("Strike At the Wind").
But season two of Strike at the Wind failed to live up to the lofty expectations. Only about 13,000 people attended the play in 1977, a substantial decrease from the first year. The success of the first season was apparently due primarily to Robeson locals, especially those who attended the play more than once. In 1977, Allen A. Witt, a graduate student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, wrote a Master's Thesis that explained the drop in attendance. While doing research for his thesis on outdoor dramas in the summer of 1976, Witt passed out questionnaires to patrons attending Strike, as well as other outdoor plays in North Carolina. According to Witt's findings, more than seventy percent of the audience for Strike during its first season lived within fifty miles of Pembroke. Witt concluded that the promotional campaign failed to attract large numbers of visitors from outside Robeson County, as many members of the RCHD had hoped that it would. These facts did not bode well for the future of the outdoor production, as locals would most likely not continue to attend multiple productions after the first year. In order to grow, the play needed to attract tourists from outside of the Robeson County area. Witt's thesis did include one important positive statistic, though: more than three-fourths of those questioned thought that the play was "better than expected"; roughly twenty percent said that the play was "about what they expected"; and only about three percent characterized Strike as disappointing (Witt 34-39).
In 1978 Strike experienced its first significant changes. Rock Kershaw left the production to take a new position as Assistant General Manager for The Lost Colony in Manteo. Lane Hudson, Jr., was named the new General Manager. Also, Bo Thorp replaced Arthur McDonald as Director. Thorp, a native of Fayetteville, was a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a degree in Theater Arts. Previously, he had worked with the Fayetteville Little Theater and the Fort Bragg Playhouse. There were other minor changes in the production, though the two key roles, Henry Berry Lowry and Rhoda Strong, were once again filled by Melton Lowry and Hope St. Pierre.
In season three, Strike encountered some criticism from the local Indian community. Although still supportive of the play in general, one local columnist who had previously praised the production attacked Strike for historical inaccuracies. According to the writer, the story of Henry Bear, as told in the play, differed from what he had been taught by his relatives. "But whose hero is it we are talking about?" he wrote in July of 1978. "Is it the hero my grandfather told me about on his front porch or is it the hero Jimmy Autry (the talented non-Indian who handles publicity for Strike at the Wind) tells us about in weekly press releases? I tend to believe my grandfather" (Barton 144).
Despite the problems of the late 1970s, Strike at the Wind continued into the 1980s. During that decade, the play experienced some good years, struggled at other times, but managed to maintain production. One highlight came in 1982 when Strike was performed at the World's Fair in Knoxville, Tennessee. But, as in the 1970s, the play continued to attract audiences mostly from southeastern North Carolina. The play never did live up to the financial dreams of the original members of the RCHD, nor did it turn into a major tourist attraction. Nevertheless, the annual production of the outdoor drama became an important cultural and social event for the local Lumbee Indians. The Robeson County Historical Drama maintained ownership of the production, and the majority of the cast and the staff continued to consist of locals, including many amateurs. Moreover, both the cast and the staff were constantly changing from one year to the next. Consequently, during the late 1970s and 1980s, thousands of Lumbees were directly involved with the play. Local Indians also helped raise the money to finance the yearly production, while others contributed their time and talent to help with set construction, costumes, and other important details. Strike at the Wind was a Lumbee production and, therefore, a source of community pride and solidarity.
In the early 1990s, the lack of box-office success caught up with the play. Unable to expand its audience, the production of Strike ran into serious financial trouble. Desperate to increase attendance, David Carter, the Chairman of the RCHD, suggested moving the play to Lumberton, which was larger than Pembroke and closer to the 1-95 corridor. The goal, of course, was to try to attract outsiders to increase the revenues. Fearing the loss of their play, many in the local Indian community opposed the move to Lumberton, which was not considered a Lumbee location. Henry Berry Lowry, the play, and the amphitheater all had close historical and cultural connections to the Pembroke area. Consequently, the move was not made. Unable to increase revenues and running out of local financing, the RCHD shut down production of Strike in 1996. They revived the play in 1999, only to stop production once again in 2004. Board members of the RCHD greatly regretted the decision, but there was no alternative at the time. "We went for twenty-five years but the last couple of years it was nearly impossible because we couldn't raise the funds to continue to put it on," an exasperated Perlean Revels, the President of the RCHD, said in an interview with a local journalist (qtd. in Locklear 1). Corbin Eddings, a local actor who had recently portrayed Henry Berry Lowry, also understood the financial problem. "From a marketing standpoint, you can't expect local people to support a drama of that size," he told the same reporter in 2005; "The locals have been loyal, but we've got to reach out further" (qtd. in Locklear 1).
In 2005, the Carolina Arts Network, Inc. (CAN) acquired the rights to Strike at the Wind from the RCHD. After thirty years everyone agreed that change was needed. "We want what's best for the drama," Diane Jones, Vice Chairman of the RCHD said, "and if new blood can come in and revitalize it ... the full board indicated that we would support that"(Locklear 1). A non-profit organization, CAN was dedicated to promoting the culture of southeastern North Carolina through plays, music, concerts, and other artistic endeavors. CAN members had a bold vision for reviving and expanding the annual production. "We see Strike at the Windas an economic development for the entire region," Malinda Maynor Lowery, a Lumbee member of CAN's Board of Directors, said in an interview in March 2005; "the play enhances the local community's historical and cultural value and can educate people outside the county. We want to make sure the community feels it has ownership over the drama, but also make sure outsiders have access to the story" (Locklear 1).
In July 2006, Lowery and the other members of the CAN Board of Directors reopened the production of Strike. The group also maintained the core elements of the production. Umberger's script, relatively unchanged, was kept, and the play was performed at the amphitheater in Pembroke, which had been renamed in honor of Adolph Dial. Furthermore, production of the play, including casting decisions, remained in the hands of local Lumbees. CAN named Dr. David Oxendine, an Assistant Professor at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, Artistic Director of Strike at the Wind. A native of Pembroke, Oxendine received his BA in Theater from Catawba College and his PhD in Psychology from North Carolina State University. According to Oxendine and other members of CAN, there were two ways to save the production. First, the budget needed to be increased significantly. In the late 1990s, the play had been produced for about $60,000 per year, a very small sum for a large outdoor drama. "Ideally, [the budget] needs to be $500,000," Oxendine said in March of 2005. But after more than a quarter of a century, local sources for funding had been tapped dry. Therefore, CAN needed to attract external funding, from both private and public sources, for new lights, new equipment, new costumes, and improvements for the amphitheater. Second, Strike needed a much more aggressive marketing scheme, one that would attract outsiders. "We want to have tourists from all over the state," Oxendine told a reporter; "After twenty-five years, the local folks have seen the show" (Locklear 1).
Since the end of the Civil War, the Indians of Robeson County, known today as the Lumbees, have been fighting to protect their Native American culture and identity. In the late 1900s, that fight included a concerted effort to achieve official recognition from the federal government. The Lumbees have tried several ways to earn acknowledgment, both through Congressional legislation and through the Bureau of Indian Affairs' complicated petitioning process. They have constantly encountered resistance from those, both Indian and non-Indian, who question their status as an American Indian tribe. To earn recognition, the Lumbees must prove to skeptics that they are a "real" Indian tribe. In order to do that, the Lumbees believe that they have to educate their critics, teach them about the rich Indian history of Robeson County, North Carolina. This is not easy. Native Americans are the only people in the United States who have to prove who they are.
In the 1970s the annual production of Strike at the Wind became one of the avenues used by the Lumbees to educate non-Indians about their past. It was a way for them to directly assert their Indianness to outsiders. Moreover, the Lumbees, and other Robesonians, saw Strike as a potential economic stimulant, a way to pump outside money into a struggling economy. So far, the play has not been as financially successful as the founders of the RCHD initially hoped. But that does not mean that it has been a failure. On the contrary, the production, which usually opened in conjunction with the annual Homecoming in late June or early July, helped unite the local Indian community. In the past thirty years, thousands of Lumbees have worked on Strike in a variety of ways. And in doing so, they have helped preserve and protect Lumbee identity and culture.
In the summer of 2006, the Carolina Arts Network officially reopened Strike at the Wind. The future of the production, however, remained a mystery, much as the fate of its hero, Henry Berry Lowry, remained a mystery. But CAN members and other local Lumbees appeared to be dedicated to preserving the outdoor drama, which became an important part of Lumbee society in Robeson County. And if the long history of the local community is any indication, the resolve and perseverance of the Lumbee Indians will ensure that the outdoor drama Strike at the Wind will be around for many years to come.
Anderson, Ryan. "Lumbee Kinship, Community, and the Success of the Red Banks Mutual Association." American Indian Quarterly 23.2 (1999): 39-58.
Barton, Bruce. An Indian Manifesto: The Best of As I See it: The Sometimes irreverent but always honest columns by Bruce Barton, Editor, as they appeared in the Carolina Indian Voice Newspaper over the last ten years. With some musings from Ol' Reasonable Locklear. Pembroke, NC: The Carolina Indian Voice, 1983.
Bledsoe, Jerry. "Lumbees Don't Want a Drama Like the One At Cherokee." Greensboro Daily News 15 Sept. 1972: 1.
Blu, Karen I. The Lumbee Problem: The Making of an American Indian People. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2001.
Dial, Adolph L., and David K. Eliades. The Only Land I Know: A History of the Lumbee Indians. San Francisco: Indian Historian, 1975.
Evans, W. McKee. To Die Game: The Story of the Lowry Band, Indian Guerillas of Reconstruction. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1971.
--. "The North Carolina Lumbees: From Assimilation to Revitalization." Southeastern Indians Since the Removal Era. Ed. Walter L. Williams. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1979. 49-71.
Locklear, Mark. "SATW Gets New Leadership." Robesonian 22 Mar. 2005: 1.
Munger, Guy. "An Indian Whose Heart is Filled with Music." News and Observer[Raleigh] 11 November 1979: 3.
Oakley, Christopher Arris. Keeping the Circle: American Indian Identity in Eastern North Carolina, 1885-2004. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2005.
Reising, R.W. "Literary Depictions of Henry Berry Lowry: Mythic, Romantic and Tragic," MELUS 17.1 (1991-92): 87-103.
Robeson County Historical Drama. Strike at the Wind Official Souvenir Program. Pembroke: Robeson County Historical Drama, Inc., 1976.
--. Strike at the Wind Official Souvenir Program. Pembroke: Robeson County Historical Drama, Inc., 1977.
Sider, Gerald M. Lumbee Indian Histories: Race, Ethnicity, and Indian Identity in the Southern United States. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1993.
"Strike at the Wind." Lumberton Post 23 June 1977: E1.
"Strike at the Wind Continues 2nd Season." Lumberton Post 7 July 1977: 6.
"Strike at the Wind Ends Its Premiere Season." Scottish Chief[Maxton] 26 August 1976: 4.
Warren, Gene. "Majestic Figure in Strike at the Wind." Lumberton Post 16 July 1976: 8.
Wishart Family Papers, Collection 4624, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Witt, Allen A. "A Survey and Evaluation of the Promotional Techniques for Eight American Representative Outdoor Historical Dramas." Master's Thesis, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, 1977.
CHRISTOPHER ARRIS OAKLEY
East Carolina University
(1) The spelling of Lowry's name varies from source to source (Lowery, Lowrie, Lowrey, and so forth). In this article, I will use Lowry to maintain consistency.
(2) As with his name, Lowry's exact year of birth is a matter of historical debate. Most sources agree, however, that he was born in either 1847 or 1848.
(3) Henry B. Lowry remains a source of literary inspiration. In 2000, Josephine Humphreys, a non-Indian author, wrote sympathetically about the Lowry gang in her novel Nowhere Else on Earth, which is told from the perspective of Rhoda Strong, Henry's wife. Humphrey's novel won the Southern Book Award, presented by the Southern Book Critics Circle.
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|Author:||Oakley, Christopher Arris|
|Publication:||The Mississippi Quarterly|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2006|
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