UNCP’s Native museum is energized with new director

By Scott Bigelow Contributing Writer
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PEMBROKE — Interest in American Indians of the Southeast United States is growing, and UNC Pembroke’s museum aims to be a center for education about the culture, history and art of the region.

Nancy Strickland Fields became the new director of UNCP’s Museum of the Southeast American Indian earlier this month.

Fields brings 15 years of museum management experience to UNCP. She trained and worked in Santa Fe, N.M., Oklahoma, Charlotte and in Washington, D.C. at the National Museum of the Native American. Her background is in education.

The museum, with a mission to give voice to America’s First People, has had just four directors in its history. Stan Knick, an anthropologist, recently retired after a 30-year run.

The museum was born out of the ashes of Old Main, which was destroyed by fire in 1973. In the rebuilt Old Main, the museum is located in one of the region’s most historic places.

“This place is extremely important to the Lumbee and the entire Southeast,” Fields said. “The museum is a place to tell our story, a gathering place. We’re very fortunate to have a place like this as part of a university.”

Native history is a critical piece of the story of mankind, and Native museums are critical storytellers of human history, Fields said. Due in part to the success of the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of the American Indian, Native museums are experiencing a renaissance.

“All tribal museums are challenged to build an audience,” Fields said. “It’s a challenge to be endlessly creative in interpreting history and culture through a museum.”

The Museum of the Southeast American Indian has a solid foundation with a growing collection and a strong relationship with area academics, artists and crafts experts. The museum hosts several art shows a year and a speaker series sponsored by UNCP’s Southeast American Indian Studies program. There is also an annual academic conference.

The new director is drafting a five-year plan to reorganize the display areas with an interactive theme and enhanced graphics, digital and traditional. Fields outlined the new segmented floor plan.

“To begin with, we will install a discovery center with hands-on learning for intergenerational visitors,” she said. “There will be an education center which graphically demonstrates the chronology of Native America. It will focus on Southeastern people, their language, religion, education.”

Moving counterclockwise around the museum, the next section will focus on the Civil War.

“The Civil War remains very popular, and it was an important time for our people. It was a time of hunger and a time of hope.”

The next section will focus on the Reconstruction era up to the 1890s. During this time, Croatan Normal School, UNCP’s first namesake, was founded.

There will be space to exhibit art.

“Art is very important to me,” Fields said. “Although I have a history background, art is a passion.”

Finally, there will be a museum store to purchase books, DVDs, crafts and memorabilia.

Fields’ passion for museum management and art was nurtured as an undergraduate student in Santa Fe, one of America’s foremost art communities. It is also a center of Native art, and Fields majored in museum studies at the Institute of American Indian Arts.

“Santa Fe is an arts mecca with a very professional atmosphere,” she said. “It was a great place to learn.”

Fields’ education began in Charlotte, where she grew up. She was immersed in the local Native community there, supplemented by many visits with family in Robeson County. Her family’s burial place is at Harpers Ferry Baptist Church.

“I grew up coming here,” Fields said of Robeson County. “I am still pinching myself in disbelief that I’m back. It must be destiny.

“I am passionate about my people and culture.This is where I be long. It was meant to be.”

Fields said she found support and encouragement from mentors at every step of her journey. In Charlotte, Rosa Winfree “lit a fire under me in my early in life,” she said.

Winfree, a UNCP graduate, and later the late Helen Maynor Sheirbeck in Washington, D.C., were two Pembroke natives who served as role models and gave Fields encouragement.

Now it’s her turn to lead.

“I want to make this a living, breathing place of sharing for all people,” said said. “It should also be fun.”

Being Lumbee helped too, even in New Mexico.

“There has been a lot of attention and study given to southwestern American Indians,” Fields said. “But that’s changing, as I found out in Oklahoma. Most of the Indians in Oklahoma originally came from the Southeast, and they want to reconnect with their history.”

In Oklahoma, Fields worked as an education coordinator at the state’s American Indian Cultural Center and Museum. Before that, she worked as an educator at the National Museum of the American Indian, with the Metrolina Native American Association and at the Institute of American Indian Art in Santa Fe. She earned a master’s degree in history education from UNC Wilmington in 2006.

Fields is one of only three women directors of Native museums in the nation. With a full resume of experiences, she is well positioned to make the Museum of the Southeast Indian a premier place for learning and study of the unique culture, history and art of the Southeastern U.S. American Indians.

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By Scott Bigelow Contributing Writer