Lumbee Roots and Navy Boots
by U.S. Navy Megan Mills, NAS Sigonella
November , 2020
With his sandy hair and blue eyes, Engineman 2nd Class Jason Rogers is aware that you may not recognize his Native American ancestry at first glance. He learned of his Lumbee heritage when he was about four years old, which has been an integral part of his life and military service ever since.
“I look more like my dad. When I was a kid, I didn’t even know what a Lumbee was until my mom told me,” he said. “When we would come back down home, we wouldn’t really go out in town when I was younger. It wasn’t till I got older that I talked to strangers and realized they talked just like my Aunt Nelly, and I can’t understand a word she’s saying.”
November 10, 2020 - Engineman 2nd Class Jason Rogers at his desk onboard Naval Air Station (NAS) Sigonella. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Kegan E. Kay)
“Come back down home” is a phrase Rogers uses frequently when describing Robeson County and the town of Pembroke, North Carolina, which is where a majority of the Lumbee Tribe still reside.
In fact, Lumbee members make up over 40% of Robeson County’s population. Rogers was born there, and though he moved across the state to Concord as a child, he returned frequently with his mother, who was also a member of the Lumbee Tribe.
It’s also not the only phrase that stands out when you listen to Rogers speak. The Lumbee dialect includes some unique vocabulary; for example, to “make a mummuck of things” means to make a mess of things, and an “ellick” means coffee with sugar. Rogers acquired it during his frequent trips to Robeson. “The more I went down to home, I actually developed the dialect,” said Rogers. “Then I’d go back to school in Concord and my English teachers would get mad at me because I’m talking all types of medicine and they’d be like, ‘that’s not how you say things.’”
This language barrier has even occasionally caused issues during Rogers’s service in the Navy. “When I was in Japan, I was talking with a Haitian second class and a Filipino first class, and they’re yelling at me because they couldn’t understand a word I was trying to tell them, and then I had to break my own dialect,” he said.
However, he has not broken his connection to his culture.
Historians debate the roots of the Lumbee tribe; while some originally thought they descended from the lost tribe of Roanoke, now many believe they are related to Siouan or Cheraw tribes. Though the origins of the Lumbee remain uncertain, it is now the ninth largest tribe in the United States and the largest east of the Mississippi River.
Today, its members are racially diverse, but they share both a dialect and a culture.
Rogers learned about Lumbee culture mostly from his mother, Sherry Taylor Rogers, and grandfather, James Taylor, both of whom have passed away. However, it took him a while to fully embrace it.
“I was proud of it, but I wasn’t really proud of it till I got the medicine wheel tattoo when I was 18,” said Rogers. "I didn't really know what it meant until my grandfather passed away." The medicine wheel, a circle divided into four different colored quarters, represents the cycle of life. According to Rogers, “red is birth, yellow is growth, then maturity is black, and white is obviously death.”
Rogers also learned about his heritage through cultural events in Robeson County, including the play “Strike at the Wind,” which tells the story of the Lowrie War, and the annual Lumbee Homecoming.
Homecoming is a large annual celebration that includes traditional dances and clothes, arts and crafts, and a place for people to come together from far away. “People will put on family shirts. They have pride in their family, pride in what they do, and it’s an amazing experience,” Rogers remembered.
Family both inspired Rogers to join the military and also led him to defer his dreams for a time. His grandfather, James Taylor, served in the Army, as did his cousin Charles Bullard. “I always wanted to go,” he said. “I always had that militant mindset. I didn’t really see myself staying in North Carolina.” He signed up for the Marines when he was 18, but when his mother became ill, he decided to stay home and take care of her. As he took care of her, he took on a few jobs and went to school for a while, but the call to service never left him.
“I always thought if I don’t join the military by the time I’m 25, I’m not going to join, so when I hit 24, I joined the Navy,” he said.
According to the Naval History and Heritage Command, there is a long and honorable tradition of Native Americans serving in the military. In addition to serving in high numbers in nearly every major war the United States has taken part in, as of 2012, there were over 22,000 American Indians serving in the military. The Navy includes about 15,000 active duty, reservist, and civilians who declare themselves Native American.
As fate would have it, Rogers’s service in the Navy would lead him to serving under a commanding officer, who was also a member of the Lumbee Tribe.
“His name was Cmdr. Morris Oxendine,” he said. “You can’t miss him. He looks like a Lum and talks like a Lum. Everybody thought that man sounded different, but I thought he sounded like home!”
Rogers’s pride was evident as he spoke of the now-Captain Oxendine. “That was the first time I’d ever seen a Lum in the military,” Rogers recalled. “To see him at such a high rank was a good feeling.”
The son of a sharecropper, Oxendine joined the Navy as a Seaman in 1982 and was commissioned as an Ensign in 1996. He gives credit to his Lumbee heritage for his success. “When I came into the Navy, I already knew the value of teamwork and I understood the value of working for what you believe in,” Oxendine wrote. “The Navy is a team rooted in the values of honor, courage, and commitment. I was able to be successful in the Navy because my Lumbee Indian heritage taught me these same values.”
Rogers also believes that his identity as a member of the Lumbee tribe is intertwined with his military service. “Lums are hard workers,” he said. “They grow their own crops and they have their own way of living. They built that. I take that with me. Not only do I have that hardworking attitude, but everything I do, I reflect back on my family and on the race that I represent, which is my Lumbee tribe.”
Oxendine recognized those traits in Rogers from their time together. “He was always working on that old [Landing Craft Utility],” he recalled. “He was a hard worker and an outstanding Sailor.”
Although the Lumbee tribe has been officially recognized by the state of North Carolina, it remains unrecognized by the government of the United States. It’s a complicated process with a long and fraught history, but federal recognition could lead to grants and other benefits for tribe members. Despite attempts from as early as 1888 and as recently as 2019, all efforts have thus far fallen short, and the Lumbee Act of 1956 preventing Lumbee from receiving federal benefits is still in effect.
The fight for recognition has been a part of Rogers’s life since childhood. “As long as I’ve known I was a Lumbee, all I’ve ever heard is, ‘Can we get federally recognized?’ It’s been going on for over two hundred years.”
Recent efforts have bipartisan backing, though, and during October of 2020, both President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden pledged their full support for federal recognition during campaign stops in the Lumbee homeland.
Whatever the outcome, Rogers continues to embrace both the Navy and his heritage. Rogers has no intention of leaving the Navy anytime soon, and he’s grateful for the experiences he’s had. “I always wanted to travel, see the world. I’ve been to 31 countries by now. It’s been a heck of an experience.”
At the same time, he is eager to return to Robeson County for a longer visit as soon as the pandemic allows. “I definitely can’t wait to go back down home,” he said. “I would love to see another Homecoming.”
Note... Minor editing without impacting factual aspects.
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