Robert Greeson has dedicated his life to defending a piece of himself he once hated.
Growing up as Jewish and indigenous in a rural mountain town in Georgia that was less than welcoming to minorities made it difficult for Greeson to feel prideful in his formative years, and as a teen he often disowned the heritage his parents attempted to share with him.
In recent years, as Greeson moved to Charlotte and fathered a daughter, he began to fully appreciate his cultural background. The death of his great aunt HatBell, the last of 13 siblings, made Greeson introspective, and he regretted not learning more of her and her family's story before she passed.
HatBell's death and his daughter's birth inspired Greeson to become more proactive in not only recognizing his ancestral roots, but defending the indigenous culture that historically has been trampled on, extorted and erased.
Greeson now chairs the North Carolina-based American Indian Party, an advocacy group that works in various capacities to support indigenous rights in the Carolinas and nationwide. Over the last two years, he has led the fight to rebrand two Gaston County schools — the South Point Red Raiders and the East Gaston Warriors — and convince Charlotte leaders to change Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples' Day, while also working within the local indigenous community on issues including suicide prevention and education rights.
In the lead-up to Greeson's appearance on a panel with nationally renowned indigenous artist and activist Cannupa Hanska Luger discussing indigenous displacement on Wednesday, May 3, Creative Loafing sat down with him in his east Charlotte home to discuss local indigenous activism and how art plays a role.
Creative Loafing: How did you come to be so active in the local indigenous community?
Robert Greeson: I grew up in the Georgia mountains, a small town, and there were four Indian families — mine and three others. It wasn't the best area to be something other than white. So you were trying to assimilate the best you could; it just wasn't encouraged to stand out or be different.
Living in a small town, I tried to fit in. I come from a mixed heritage — American Indian and Jewish — so being an American Indian Jew in the South is not the easiest thing in the world. That mixed heritage, there's a double-edged sword aspect to it. It can make things very difficult to be too red for white people, too white for red people. And then you kind of feel like you don't have a place, or you have the issue of struggling to find yourself, finding where you fit in.
Growing up, my mother would drag me to pow wows, and I didn't want to go. I thought it's just a bunch of old Indians sitting around, I could be doing something else, playing baseball with my friends. I really ran from it. Especially as I got older in the teenage years when I could kind of advocate for myself more. Then, in college and my 20s, I really struggled. Once I moved to North Carolina and had my daughter a couple of years ago, that's when I really started to think about her and who she is and who she comes from, and making sure that she didn't have some of the same concerns and worries that I had growing up and that she could be or do whatever she wants to do without restrictions or racism and discrimination.
That was a huge impetus for me being a lot more vocal and aggressive with some of the causes I'm affiliated with, not just in the American Indian community, but in a lot of other minority communities and environmental issues. A lot of the issues are so related that people, if you just trace it back, you'll see how the fingers are in all the pies, sort of.
So a big part of it was her, and then my [grandfather] Paw-Paw was one of 13 children, and less than a year after my daughter was born [in 2015], his sister, my great aunt Hatbelle, passed away. So all those experiences were gone — all that disappeared. That made me sad that my daughter's not going to know that and I had missed out on some information. That's why I do what I do and why I'm so passionate about it. It's all for her.
What does the American Indian Party do?
It's an American Indian advocacy organization, a civil rights group, and what we do is advocate for American Indian rights and issues impacting American Indians. It can be hard for lone activists, or even unsafe sometimes, to go out on their own and fight for causes, and sometimes we can serve as insulation or as a platform to help them. It's a very broad, diverse coalition of individuals and groups.
We're really about raising awareness that we're still here. Most people are surprised to know that there's 10,000 American Indians in Charlotte, and from a vast array of different tribes.
American Indians in the South face unique challenges. We were the first to be colonized. Some of the tribes out west still have a lot more awareness, historically speaking or identity-wise, and it's a little bit trickier in the South because our culture and society was decimated much earlier. We were able to hold on to a great deal but there's still a lot we weren't able to.
What tribe are you a member of?
I've received so much hate mail, and my tribe has received so much hate mail, that the tribe asked me not to publicly share my tribal affiliation. I don't share it because some 70-year-old lady on council is sitting down to check her email and look at pictures of her grandkids and she's got 30 emails saying, "You're this, you're this, you're this," just because some people really love their racist high school mascots. That's why I try to insulate that from people. When they can't hurt you, they go after the people and things that you love, and it's kind of sad. But people in the American Indian community know my tribal affiliation and they know my experiences.
I've known you for a couple years and you do seem to bring that hatred out of people. What are they so mad at?
I usually say what most other people in the room are thinking, they just don't say. Whether it was with the Citizens Review Board having subpoena power two years ago, whether it was with the campaign contributions from developers, whether it's about Charlotte being the largest city that doesn't report contact with lobbyists. That's not just a campaign finance issue. Who do you think these lobbies are working for? It ties in eventually with environmental issues and neighborhood issues that impact minority communities. It's all related if you trace it back. There's all these issues.
I just got tired of nothing changing and everyone knowing why but nobody saying it, because that's not what you're supposed to say. People are not holding people accountable, there's a complete lack of transparency and accountability, and I think when you call a spade a spade, some people don't like that. It's not hate from me. It all comes because I love things, because I love people, because I love my community and my neighborhood, because I care about other people and not just issues that impact me.
I think it's important to have a dialogue, even with people that you disagree with fundamentally. As soon as you self-segregate or cut off communication, there's no chance for either person to evolve. Some people shy away from issues that are controversial. They want to play the fence or be non-committal, and I think silence is condonement.
It's not easy to do the right thing. If it was easy doing the right thing, then everyone would do it. You've got to do the right thing all the time, not when it's convenient, not when it's easy, all the time. That's what I try to do.
You mentioned how a lot of people really love their racist mascots, and I think a majority of white people are just sort of apathetic about it, like they just sort of roll their eyes about the whole thing. How frustrating is that when you're trying to explain to folks the reason why it matters to you?
I guess people are getting tired of hearing the term cultural appropriation. They think it's overly P.C., and that's not it. Some of it ties in to the fact that the direct descendants of those ancestors who outlawed and banned my ancestors' traditions, customs and ways of life, now try to take that very culture and use it as their own when it benefits them or amuses them, and then they don't want to hear why we're frustrated about that.
They don't want to even hear it, they automatically dismiss it as being overly sensitive or P.C. That's where some of that frustration comes from. But someone who is just ignorant, who is non-native and just ignorant of an issue, that's OK. It's OK to be ignorant. It's not OK to be ignorant and not be bothered by that, to not care and not want to fix that. So a lot of it is public outreach and education and that's what these events like the one on Wednesday are for.
That event will be centered on Cannupa Hanska Luger's art, which will be on display during a reception after you all speak on displacement. How crucial of a role does art play in those efforts to educate people about indigenous issues?
The great thing about art is that it's universal. It's not like you're going to the opera and you're listening to a play in Italian, but even that art can be so powerful that you feel it and it doesn't matter what language it is. Art has that universal transferability to be understood.
Anyone can see — it doesn't matter what language you speak or what background you're from — a powerful piece of art can be very moving. It can be a good way to bring awareness to issues. A lot of people these days don't want to read a book, they don't even want to read a 10-page article about anything. They want — I don't know if you could call it instant gratification, I don't know if you could use that word to describe it — but sometimes you just see a powerful piece of art, and it moves you, and different people might interpret it different ways, but it's just a very effective way to kind of magnify an issue or make it where more people can feel the intensity of an issue and feel it and be aware of it.
I think that's a highly effective and very universally understood. It's a way to teach people, whether it's about American Indian culture and the history, the experiences there and the historical trauma, as well as the beauty and the accomplishments. Art can be very effective in that regard.
Do you feel like the #NoDAPL movement at Standing Rock helped raise awareness for indigenous rights among non-native people around the country? Will it play into the resistance against the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which is planned to run from West Virginia to eastern North Carolina?
I think it had a bigger effect internally within the American Indian community, because that was the largest gathering of nations. That was a broad coalition to show that we do have power in numbers when we unite, rather than stay fractionalized. The government has done a good job of keeping us fractionalized, keeping American Indians fighting amongst themselves. They'll have two American Indians sitting at a table, the government is sitting at the table, and they put 20 cookies out there. The government takes 19, and they tell one Indian to watch out for that other Indian, he's going to take that last cookie. Meanwhile, they have 19.
That's something that dates back a long time ... and it was an effective means that started the whole trend of resentment and us pinning ourselves against one another, and false leaders empowering themselves instead of the people being empowered.
But lately, more and more, it's been great to see the unification and the coming together of the individuals from different tribes, different backgrounds. So that's been helpful with other fights, like with the Atlantic Coastal Pipeline coming up. There's a broad coalition, the Coalition of Woodland Nations, against that. There are so many in that organization — and I'm just a member of it, not a representative — but there's such a broad, diverse group there, and that's when we can be more effective. We're seeing that renaissance of sorts, so to speak.