Walking in my destiny
By Devra Thomas
In small towns, where folks share a handful of last names, patterns tend to repeat across generations. Names aren't the only things that get passed along, either through marriage or in memoriam. Shared personal stories become a kind of time traveling — backward to origins and forward to changing the future.
Nancy Strickland Fields is a daughter, mother, and grandmother. Professionally, she is the Director of the Museum of the Southeastern American Indian in Pembroke, North Carolina. Culturally, she hails from the Lumbee Tribe. Personally, she is a fierce storyteller, both of her own story and of those of American Indians from across the Southeast.
Her own life so far has been what she likens to "a woman’s journey." She was born in Robeson County, North Carolina, and moved to Charlotte as a young girl with her mother. "I have these rural roots but also love urban living," she explained during our phone call. She's now back in that county, surrounded by extended family. "I needed to come home. My daughter and granddaughter needed to know and be supported by their family."
American Indian women supporting other American Indian women is a theme that runs through Fields' life: her mother; Rosa Winfrey, a teacher who took special interest in expanding Fields' education; her boss at the Indian Center in Charlotte, Lisa Strickland, who gave Fields her first job working to further education and opportunities for American Indians. At 23, she lost her mother, had a three-year-old daughter, and doggedly struggled to keep a roof over their heads and figure out what she wanted to do with her life.
Fields hustled at The Indian Center, learning everything she could about youth education, event planning, and community outreach. "After working for several years in entry-level and administrative jobs, this [outreach and programming] work was a lightbulb moment about what I wanted to do," she said. Her determined work ethic and obvious love for her community started to attract attention and job offers; however, she hadn't yet been to college, and not having a degree was a stumbling point for the potential employers.
Fields decided to apply to the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Once again, the American Indian women network started to weave together. A woman who had grown up with Fields' mother was now serving as the Deputy Director of the National Museum of the American Indian; she wrote Fields a letter of recommendation and promise of work once she'd completed her degree. The director of financial aid at IAIA's son had been stationed at Fort Bragg, not far from where Fields grew up; upon learning Fields was Lumbee, the director found grant money for her studies since the tribe, while recognized by the federal government, doesn't receive federal benefits, including tuition help. Those two things helped Fields get started with her degree in Museum Studies.
After graduation, she again packed up a U-Haul to travel cross county, to Washington, D.C., for her long-awaited job at the NMAI. "My work was awesome, the people amazing," she reminisced. But she soon tired of the long hours, and the time away from her now-teenage daughter took a toll. Support women to the rescue again. Her best friend's sister was working on opening the American Indian Cultural Center and Museum in Oklahoma City, and repeatedly called Fields to come work with them. Her mother-in-law, recently widowed, lived in Oklahoma City. "It was a great fit for me. It increased our quality of life," she said. Getting in on the creation of the museum also broadened her women's network. "What's the place Wonder Woman's from?" she chuckled. "It really felt like that: so many powerful women supporting each other."
Another round of change came, as did another chance to be supported: Her mother-in-law passed away, she divorced her husband, and her daughter had her own child. "I had a Forrest Gump moment. I knew without a doubt I was ready to go home." The MSAI directorship came open, and she was approached to run the museum. Needing to find housing after moving across the country again, a cousin mentioned having an empty rental property less than a mile from her campus office.
"I didn't understand why I spent my life cramming information and stories about the Southeastern American Indians," Fields mused. The journeys she knows — her own, her tribe's, other American Indians' — are all connected. "Our ancestors blazed these trails. I'm now picking up this torch, carrying it forward, building on the path."
Working in these museums, with the art, artifacts, and collections, Fields said, is her opportunity to "help tell Native stories in first person." Art, especially, is a way to communicate about a variety of topics that might otherwise not be discussed. "We didn't talk about our feelings much growing up," Fields recalled, "but I learned how to when discussing art in my college classes. No apology was necessary for feeling how we felt about a piece."
No longer restricted to a Western anthropological viewpoint, the curation Fields specializes in highlights the different ways Native art conveys information. The use of allegory, magical realism, patterning, and personification share origin stories, family histories, and tribal tales. "Family members bring celebrations to the museum," Fields explained. "These pieces aren't just utilitarian, but have their own life and place within the family."
“I hope my own story will inspire another woman," she said. Sometimes patterns can be inspiring; sometimes they need to be reinterpreted, changed, deleted, added to. Patterns don't have to repeat exactly. Someone can use the most enlivening parts and build something beautiful, new, with homage to the past — time traveling both ways at once.
Devra helps performing artists successfully bring their performance dreams to life through meticulous project management and core audience cultivation. She spent 10 years in retail management honing her customer service skills, then another 10 in theater management bringing her arts passion and business skills together. A published writer on arts topics such as arts ecosystems, gender parity in the arts, and audience development, she served as editor of The Marbury Project at The Clyde Fitch Report for three years. She holds a master's degree in Arts Administration from Goucher College. If she's not hanging out with her family or in a theater, she likely has her nose stuck in a book.