The Wide-Awake Indian Council 1910-1950

The Wide Awake Indian Council of the Waccamaw Tribe is the earliest remembered governing body. According to oral history, it was established in 1910. From then until 1950, the council provided the leadership necessary to pursue two important objectives: winning county and state recognition as Indians so that tax dollars could be used to fund Indian Schools in the Waccamaw Settlements, and passing a bill in the U.S. Congress designating them the Waccamaw Sioux Tribe of North Carolina. They worked toward these goals by establishing articulatory relationships with the local, state and federal government.

The Council was comprised of “men of age” who were chosen by family groups living within the tribal settlements. It met in homes, churches, or in the settlement schools. At such times, council members gave reports of their travels on behalf of the tribe and discussed community concerns. Council membership ran along family lines and the tenure of council members was determined by continuing support from family members and by the member’s willingness to serve. The council (1900 to 1945) worked closely with a specially appointed school committee whose duty was to speak before the county school boards on behalf of the tribe and with a special committee to seek federal recognition.

The first objective of the council was to achieve recognition that they were Indians from local and state officials and as such had the right to Indian schools within their communities. Even before 1900 community representatives had been placed on the local school committees in Columbus County in order to insure direct participation by Indian parents in the education of their children. Although not totally effective, the tribe sought to maintain de facto control over the schools during a time when the schools which the Indians attended were officially open to both Indians and Blacks. Oral history of these years describes them as ones during which the tribe was learning how to influence the local white school administrators. From the actions of the Waccamaw leaders it can be deduced that they were aware that earlier (1885) the state of North Carolina had opened schools for the “Croatan” Indians of Robeson and adjoining counties. Since the state acknowledged the rights of Croatan Indians, the Waccamaw leaders sought to have themselves designated Croatan, too.

Successful strategies of articulation typically diffuse from one Indian community to the next as leaders experiment with various approaches to achieve their goals. But gaining recognition as Croatan Indians was never a satisfactory solution for the Waccamaw because outside the state it was seen merely as a convenient label for a group with mixed ancestry and it did not guarantee any other rights. Even within North Carolina, the label Croatan, shortened to “Cro(w)”, was being used by some whites to mean Negro. However, the Waccamaw continued with this strategy for winning the right to Indian schools, and in 1914 the question of Indian schools came to the attention of the county school superintendent, F.T. Wooten, and the Federal Indian Agent, O.M. McPherson, who was in charge of an investigation into the conditions of the Croatan Indians of Southeastern North Carolina.

An entry in Book 1 of the school board minutes of Columbus County in 1920 shows that the “Indian School” question was still unsettled as members of the Wide Awake Indian Council continued to pressure the board for separate schools. The Waccamaw tribal leaders hired Donald McRackan, an attorney, to present their case to Dr. E.C. Brooks, Superintendent of Public Instruction, arguing that since the Croatan of other counties had already won separate Indian schools their rights as Indians were being denied. McRackan was informed by the state superintendent that “the law does not compel the County board of education to provide separate schools for the Indians of its county.” The matter was left up to the discretion of the local school board. This action may have been precipitated by the Columbus school board’s refusal to allow the Waccamaw school committee to keep non-Indian children from attending their schools. The Board reprimanded the tribal school committee and threatened to take them to court unless they opened their schools to all “colored” children. Perhaps because of the slow communication, the Waccamaw were trying to be recognized as Croatan the same time the name was being dropped in favor of “Cherokee” by those already designated Croatan Robeson County. Thereafter, from 1913 until 1953, Cherokee was synonymous with Indian within the state, protected by state law, and provided with state tax dollars to support education.

Unable to control admission to their community schools, in 1923 some parents in the Buckhead community abandoned the county schoolhouse and moved their children to St. Mark’s Church, where they would have direct control; others began to construct their own schoolhouse. This situation was accepted by the Columbus school board because in 1924 the Wide Awake Indian Council, led by W.J. Freeman, had managed to convince the school board to reimburse the tribe for expenses incurred during the use of “a church for school purposes two years.” That year (1924), tribal members deeded land to the board for a school in the Indian Settlement at St. James. Evidence that the school authorities accepted this situation appeared in the board minutes for 1927 when the two Indian settlement-controlled schools and their committees appeared on the school list. Events of the 1920’s reveal that tribal effort was concentrated on controlling entry to the Indian community schools and on pressing the board for recognition as an Indian community. Tribal leaders worked simultaneously on both the local and state levels.

In 1927 Waccamaw leaders dropped their campaign to be identified as Croatan and tried instead to be designated Cherokee. They hired Thomas Johnson, an attorney from Lumberton, North Carolina, to present their argument to an unsympathetic school board. Once again a successful strategy for articulation was adopted from the Lumbee of Robeson County. The Waccamaw won a minor battle when they successfully passed Chapter 213, Public School Law in 1927. This law guaranteed separate schools to the Cherokee of Columbus County; however, no action was taken to implement the law. By 1928 the school board’s inaction caused the tribal council to press mandamus proceedings through their attorney. Then in 1929 the Columbus County board of education and the Columbus County commissioners lobbied successfully for the repeal of Chapter 213. This stopped the flow of state and county funds to the support of Indian schools.

With characteristic persistence, Waccamaw leader W.J. Freeman continued to appear in the board minutes presenting the needs of the Indian community, including that of well-trained Indian teachers. St. James committeeman George Mitchel asserted his Indian status when he refused to accept a position on the school committee until the board granted him recognition as an Indian. Then in 1933, the tribe experienced a victory when the Bladen County board of education accepted the proposition that the Waccamaw deserved separate Indian schools, granting them permission to open the first such school within their community on the Bladen side of the county line. This first county-funded Indian school was known as Wide Awake Indian School.

Stimulated by this success, tribal members living in Columbus County once again renewed their efforts and petitioned the board to officially designate the St. Mark’s school (held in the community church by the same name) an Indian school. Their petition failed, but they maintained their efforts until 1945, when the Columbus County board of education finally agreed to support separate county schools for Indians. Throughout this struggle, the Wide Awake Indian Council played an important role, providing leadership which presented the same articulation strategy in their 1940 to 1950 effort to become federally recognized. The Wide Awake Indian Council attached “Siouan” onto the name “Waccamaw”, referring both to their county and to the lake by which they had always lived. Use of the name “Siouan” was apparently fairly widespread.

In November of 1949 members of the Wide Awake Indian Council traveled to Washington, D.C. in the company of James Alexander. There they visited the BIA offices, seeking advice on how to pursue their objective of federal recognition. Through their representative, Alexander, the tribe also made contact with the Association of American Indian Affairs of New York City. The President of the Association, Oliver La Farge, and the associaiton’s executive director, Alexander Lesser, both anthropologists, were persuaded by Alexander to look into the Waccamaw case. Later they became convinced that the Waccamaw had the right to federal recognition as an Indian tribe. The Washington attorney and council to the association, Felix Cohen, reviewed the Waccamwa case and eventually drafted a bill to the U.S. Congress which became known as the Waccamaw Bill (H.R. 7153, H.R. 7299). In consultation with Cohen, the Waccamaw decided to place their lands in trust in order to establish a land base for tribal members living in the Buckhead area. This was done to prevent any further loss of landholdings. At a meeting in the Buckhead area, 157 Waccamaw adults signed a resolution stating their support of the terms of the Waccamaw bill.

The bill was submitted to Congress in the spring of 1950 and directed to a House committee that referred the matter to the Office of Indian Affairs in April of that year. By the end of May, the Office of Indian Affairs, headed by Dillon Myer, was encouraged by Alexander Lesser to expedite matters. The legislation proposed two steps: (1) give the Waccamw Indians protection as regards their lands, and (2) give them rights and privileges as a tribe under the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. By August of 1950, the Office of Indian Affairs had returned a negative response to the House committee recommending that the Waccamaw Bill be defeated. While sympathetic to the Waccamaw petition, Dale Doty, the assistant secretary of the interior, expressed the fear that recognition of the Waccamaw would encourage many other unrecognized groups in North Carolina and other eastern and southeastern states to seek recognition. Thus, despite considerable effort on the part of the Association for the Waccamaw, the bill was defeated in late summer of 1950.

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