Tribal Administrator, Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation
By Hannah Miller
Vickie Jeffries is many things: indigenous herbalist, traditional dancer, tribe linguist, beader, basket weaver, and tribal administrator of the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation. As the tribal administrator, Jeffries is responsible for the daily activities of the tribe. Keeping the culture, crafts, and traditions of her ancestors alive is her passion. Other wisdom she cherishes from her ancestors? Respecting Mother Earth.
As an indigenous herbalist, Jeffries can find the value in plants that many other people may see as pesky weeds, like dandelions. Mint, rosemary, lemon balm and other common things have healing properties that many people would never expect. This process and others are being affected by climate change, though, and Jeffries’ community has noticed.
“Everything is shifting. Before, my ancestors used to observe the stars, the shapes of the clouds, and the behavior of animals to forecast the weather. We can't rely on those things anymore,” Jeffries said. Although the general population might not notice heat settling in a few weeks earlier each summer, or stretching a few weeks longer each fall, Jeffries has noticed. Increasingly frequent hot days, frosts coming weeks early, and rain that comes for weeks and leaves for months has thrown off their plans for planting. This year, for instance, their corn crop started out beautifully, but by the end of the season it was practically dead.
To understand and adapt to these changes, Jeffries says you have to go back to the indigenous ways.
“You really have to go back to the land. Like Gordon Hempton says, ‘We need to fall back in love with the land’,” Jeffries said. “We have always done science, but we’re always dismissed about the way that we;ve done things. So you need to listen to indigenous people, and not dismiss us. Listen to how we tend to land, because we're in trouble.”
Jeffries’ community tries their best to be prepared, which allowed them to sustain minimal damage from Hurricane Ian. Other than a few fallen tree branches and a little bit of roof damage, her community came out relatively unscathed.
“Some of the elders, they can feel when something's coming. And so we try to make sure that they're all prepared for it. We are always prepared.” Jeffries said.
Jeffries cites controlled burning as an example. Controlled burning allows us to stimulate natural regeneration of a forest and prevent high-intensity, out-of-control fires. But settling Americans were appalled, shocked at communities purposefully burning down trees. The indigenous communities’ vast wealth of traditional ecological knowledge allowed them to understand the purpose, though. Understanding the importance of proactive climate action is another thing Jeffries advocates for passionately.
“Our oral history of what we've done, how we have survived, goes back further than what science is aware of. We understand Mother Earth, and that we need to become better stewards of the land… Mother Earth should have rights… because she has sustained us for so long. Now you're going to turn your back on her and take away everything that she has done for us?” Jeffries said. “What they should do is transfer land back under indigenous control. We have to bridge that gap, that space between people wanting to do stuff for money and do what's best for humanity. And you have to start braiding it together, working together to achieve that.”
Jeffries has noticed that indigenous voices have slowly started to be incorporated into disciplines such as forestry, conservation, and climate science, but performative inclusion isn’t helpful.
“Include us in the conversations, you know. Don’t just send us an email and ask us something; include us in those conversations, and don’t be afraid to listen to us,” Jeffries said. “For thousands of years we survived. We understand how to care for land.”
Unfortunately, there is a pattern of dismissal when it comes to indigenous knowledge. To start bridging the gap, Jeffries recommends people build these connections as often as possible.
“Just talk with indigenous people, farmers and things like that. Understand where we're coming from and don’t dismiss us. We've been dismissed so much because of the way people think about us and our knowledge,” Jeffries said. “But you know, we're smart. I could go out into the forest right now and survive. Could someone else? We do know what we're talking about, and our knowledge is vast. And it's not something we just learned today; it's thousands of years of knowledge. It's crucial for them to get with us, because it's critical for addressing the biggest challenge of humanity: the climate crisis.”
Given in her native language, Yesanechi, her last piece of advice is simple:
“Ama:i wakta:ka ɡitǫne:sel imahe:se oɡu:yí. Give the Indians their land back."