The Life-Story of a People

Record Number: 

Deloria, Ella Cara. “Rough draft of pageant--Robeson County Indians, Pembroke, North Carolina. 'The Life-Story of a People.' Written and directed by Ella Cara Deloria, 1940-1941.” “The Modern Questor.” [approximately 31 pages]


Background Information

The pageant was written by Deloria, a Sioux ethnologist who had been working for the previous twelve years with anthropologist Franz Boas at Columbia University. Deloria was commissioned by the Farm Security Administration and the Office of Indian Affairs to live in Robeson County, get to know the Indians and their history, and write and direct a pageant which would tell their story. The timing of this project coincides with the beginning of the Red Banks Mutual Association project (see The Lumbee Indians: an annotated bibliography, page 143). 

The two-hour pageant, which had a cast of around 150 Indian people (public school students, Normal School students, and townspeople), was performed in the 600-seat gymnasium of the Indian State Normal College (now University of North Carolina at Pembroke) on December 5, 6, and 7, 1940, and again on Dec. 5, 8 and 10, 1941. The second season added a section on “The Indian in National Defense.”

The pageant traces the Lumbee from their origins (one scene hints at the Lost Colony theory), through the Henry Berry Lowry period, to the present. It also features Lumbee churches and schools. It was attended in the first season by Polly Lowry Oxendine, the last surviving daughter of Henry Berry Lowry; and in the second season by the state's governor, J. Melville Broughton.

Description of the Pageant

Although the typescript is labeled “Part III no. 3” on the cover page, examination of a copy  of the program for the 1940 performance (housed in the Guy Benton Johnson papers--see The Lumbee Indians: an annotated bibliography, item 468) indicates that this script actually represents Part I, “A Symbolical Prelude,” and Part II, “The Life-Story of a People: From the Modern Questor's Notebook.” It gives most of Episodes One, Two, and Three of Part II. The cover page also bears a handwritten note that it is the original rough draft, so it may be that Part III was added in a later draft.

This portion of the pageant presents “A Symbolical Prelude,” in which an aboriginal Questor has a vision in which he is touched and spoken to by a personification of Earth. The Questor's ancestors were trying to answer questions about their identity, origins, and surroundings (especially the wonders of the natural world). 

Other parts of the Symbolical Prelude are: 
  -Brief descriptions of Primitive Religion, Primitive Sorrow, and Primitive Hospitality, followed by an interpreting chorus. 
  -The Modern Questor's appearance changes to that of a serious, scholarly researcher, still concerned with the question of where his people came from but now using different methods. 
  -A brief discussion of aboriginal life, mentioning the Lost Colony theory of tribal origin but stating that there is insufficient evidence for drawing conclusions. 
  -A look at early days along the Lumber River stating that a definitive date for Lumbee settlement here cannot be found, describing the Indians' acculturated state when discovered by French Huguenots in 1703, and mentioning an early land grant from King George II to Henry Berry and James Lowry. 
  -A description of a subscription Indian school that was constructed as a log cabin and staffed with a teacher paid for by Indian parents. 
  -A brief scene called Pioneer Justice describing an encounter between Henry Berry Lowry (acknowledged as a hero of his people) and a young boy, Me-Mekie, who wants to right the wrongs against his people by fighting the Yankees or joining the Lowry Gang. 
  -Progress since 1885, consisting of descriptions of “the churches today,” “the schools today,” and “Pembroke College.” 
  -Glimpses of public health, the Boy Scouts, and the Girl Scouts. 
  -Brief scenes of the Indians' role in World War I and the (current) World War II. 
  -At the end , praise of Home, Country, and God; and a mention of the Farm Security Administration's project and the homes for Indians it funded.

Note: Some useful sources of information on Ella Deloria include: 

“Ella Cara Deloria.” Notable Native Americans. Detroit: Gale Research, 1995. Pp. 116-118. 

“Deloria, Ella Cara.” American National Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Vol. 6, pp. 399-400. 

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Access: The copy of a portion of the pageant described here is owned by the Dakota Indian Foundation in Chamberlain, South Dakota. To request a copy, contact the Foundation. Please note that permission to quote from this document must be obtained in advance from the Foundation.

View the full text at the Ella Deloria Archive