Native American artist Senora Lynch is pleased with the location of her creation, The Gift. The mosaic of colored bricks that form Native American symbols serves as a walkway between the two Student Unionbuildings, one of the busiest places on the Carolina campus.
“I thought it was pretty awesome because it was all the earth, and that’s what our people are about,” said Lynch, a member of the Haliwa-Saponi tribe. “We’re all about the earth, living on the earth.”
But while hundreds of students walk on The Gift each day, it’s not clear how many of them realize that it is artwork and not just another brick sidewalk.
That shouldn’t be a problem anymore.
On April 10, The Gift was rededicated to mark the completion of the project’s second phase. This was no simple ribbon cutting. Instead, Lynch’s daughter, Qua, performed the Corn Planting Dance in full regalia, spreading corn from a beribboned basket. Marty Richardson, Haliwa-Saponi and a doctoral candidate in history, concluded the event with an honor song dedicated to the late Haliwa-Saponi Chief W.R. Richardson.
“This is one of my favorite places on this campus,” said Chancellor Carol L. Folt at the rededication. “Its centrality can remind us every day and help root us in our history.”
Eleven years after the dedication of the walkway, Lynch has added artwork to describe the symbols and call attention to the art beneath the visitor’s feet. Six decorative plaques – made of concrete dyed burnt orange to look like Lynch’s pottery – wrap around the building’s columns. Cream-colored text and iconic drawings tell the meanings behind the corn, turtle, land, dogwood flower, eagle shield, path, water and medicine wheel. The 26 round seats, also burnt orange concrete, resemble pottery or drums. Set in small groupings, they repeat the symbols on their tops and also provide a place to rest and see the art.
“Many people walked on it, but they didn’t get to experience it,” said Lynch, who worked on this phase for three years. “It needed something to explain why it was here, what should people expect to see, how it could touch different lives.”
Lynch called her work The Gift because she believes “we all have something inside of ourselves, something that we can share, something we’re meant to do, meant to be,” she said. Her gift is her artistic talent.
As a child growing up in Warrenton, the artist felt a special connection to her grandfather, James Mills, a leader in the Haliwa-Saponi tribe, an inventor, craftsman and artist. She admired the baskets he wove, the jewelry boxes he made from sweet gum balls and even his own glass casket.
She became interested in pottery when she was 14 and also learned Native American beadwork. Her specialty now is traditional hand-coiled pottery using red and white clay, with her distinctive touch of etching designs into the surface. Each piece of her pottery, called “Living Traditions,” tells a story.
Lynch is nationally known for her hand-carved pottery. Her work has been displayed at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington and is in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington and the N.C. Museum of History in Raleigh.
In 2002, the Student Union began to add more diversity to its art on display. A University employee who was also a Lumbee and familiar with Lynch’s pottery recommended her. Lynch was quickly commissioned to create a design for the 240-foot long and 40-foot wide walkway.
“I’d never done anything like this before,” she said. But she submitted a design using Native symbols that she also felt had relevance to the college experience. Corn, for example, is the staff of life for Native Americans. But because Native Americans have preserved corn since ancient days, she also sees it as a symbol of preparing for the future.
She strung the corn and other symbols together to tell a story along the walkway. “It’s like the path of life,” she said. The new phase of the project reinforces and explains that story.
Lynch also has a lot of explaining to do as an artist in the schools. “That’s a lot of fun. They ask interesting questions about Native Americans,” she said. “I had one child ask me did I ride my horse there. I said, ‘I sure did. I rode my black shiny Mustang.’”
She laughs, but she’s also serious about debunking stereotypes about Native Americans. Yes, we still do traditional crafts, perform dances and meet in powwows, she tells the children. But we don’t live in teepees and wigwams or grow and hunt all our own food. We live in houses, drive cars and go to the grocery store.
Lynch is a member of the Haliwa-Saponi tribe. Haliwa combines the names of Halifax and Warren counties, where many of the 4.300 enrolled tribe members live. Saponi is the name of a Virginia tribe that migrated south at the time of the Revolutionary War, the ancestors of today’s Haliwa-Saponis.
The tribe has yet to receive federal recognition, but was recognized by North Carolina in 1965. The Haliwa-Saponi will celebrate the 50th anniversary of this recognition with an annual powwow April 17-19. The oldest powwow in the state, it attracts Native people from all parts of the United States and Canada. Lynch, her friends and family will be there, celebrating Native traditions like singing, drumming and dancing in colorful beaded and feathered regalia.
“I walk in two worlds,” she said. It’s the same with most Native Americans, which is part of the reason Lynch created The Gift as a “comfort zone” for any Native American on campus.
“The Gift serves as a special reminder to me of the vibrant Native community that thrives here at UNC,” said Chelsea Barnes, a Lumbee student and president of the Carolina Indian Circle. “We may not be a large community, but we are definitely present.”
The Gift is also a reminder to others that Native culture didn’t cease to exist when the days of the Wild West ended. “American Indians are walking on these grounds today,” Lynch said, “just like everybody else.”