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Pauly Denetclaw
Indian Country Today

Crystal Cavalier was in the eighth grade. Her grandmother was an educator. So, doing well in school was a top priority and Cavalier was a top student. Even at a young age, she dreamed of going to college. But being a young Indigenous woman in North Carolina, meant she had to work twice as hard as her peers in order to succeed in her community.

She applied to be a member of the National Honor Society. The school administration came back and said Cavalier didn’t meet the GPA requirements. She had a 92.7 and the school required a 93 percent average or higher. In disbelief, Cavalier’s grandmother recalculated the GPA. Cavalier actually had a 94 percent GPA.

She would have been the only student of color inducted into the National Honor Society that year. For two years, the family and the Alamance School District were embroiled in a lawsuit. Ultimately, the courts ruled that the school district had violated Cavalier’s civil rights, paid her out a settlement and backdated her induction to that school’s National Honor Society to two years prior.

“What we really need is for people to stand up for civil rights, even in high school, when things are being violated,” Cavalier, Occaneechi Band of the Saponi, said. “We have to speak out. And I understand how important it is now that this happened because it really shaped who I am today.”

Cavalier, Democrat, is running for the 4th Congressional District that includes the city of Durham. If elected, she would be one of the first Indigenous people to represent North Carolina in Congress. She is running again American Idol runner-up Clay Aiken, Nida Allam who is the first Muslim woman elected for state office and Valerie Foushee, who has a strong base within the Black community. There are four other democratic opponents running to represent the solidly blue district.

“It has been so racist here to where the press doesn't even see it as being historic,” Cavalier said. “Again, it's a modern day erasure.”

North Carolina, a battleground state, has one of the earliest primary elections on May 17. The winners will head to the general election in November. Cavalier isn’t the only Indigenous person running in the North Carolina congressional race. State Rep. Charles Graham, after six terms, has made the move to run for congressional district seven on the Democratic ticket.

Charles Graham | Lumbee - North Carolina State Representative

Graham, Lumbee, was the only Indigenous person in the state’s General Assembly. He decided to run for Congress after witnessing the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

“I watched that unfold. The undermining of our presidency and the other undermining of our democracy,” Graham said. “I just knew that we needed a voice in Congress that would be willing to take a stance on those things that's very important to our democracy.”

Before becoming a state legislator, Graham was an educator, working specifically with students who had various needs and disabilities. In a campaign ad, he talked about how at the beginning of his career the students he taught had very little rights in school and how he spent his career advocating for them. In that same spirit, Graham wants to be an advocate for his constituents in the 7th Congressional District.

“People in this district want someone they can speak to, they can relate to, who understands the communities, who understands the core values and those kitchen table items that people talk about and think about daily,” Graham said. “I'm a candidate that would be the right person at the right time in the right district.”

The Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina is the largest nation east of the Mississippi and its citizens live across Robeson, Cumberland, Hoke, and Scotland counties, located in the southern part of the state. District 7 has Cumberland and Robeson county, meaning a Lumbee citizen could be representing Lumbee communities in Congress. Currently, Graham represents Robeson county at the North Carolina General Assembly.

Robeson county’s population is 42 percent Native American. Scotland county is 13 percent and Hoke is nine percent. Cumberland has the lowest Native American population at two percent. District 7 from 1997 to 2015 was represented by democrat Mike McIntyre. After being targeted by the National Republican Congressional Committee to be flipped, David Rouzer was selected in 2015 for its “On the Radar,” which provides candidates with the tools they need to win against Democratic opponents. Rouzer has held the District 7 seat for the last four terms.

“I would be ready on Day One. I have the experience working in a legislative body. We have a Senate and a House. In Washington we have a Senate and a House,” Graham said. “My opponents in this race, they don't have that experience and I'm not criticizing them. But to the citizens of the 7th Congressional District, I am prepared and ready and available to go to Washington on Day One and work for the citizens of this congressional district.”

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Despite running in different districts, Cavalier and Graham both have a strong stance on the environment.

Cavalier is an environmental justice advocate who has worked tirelessly against the Mountain Valley Pipeline Southgate extension, even resigning in 2018 as a councilwoman for her nation to instead work with local coalitions to stop the pipeline from coming through Black and Indigenous communities in Rockingham, and Alamance County, home to the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi.

“They're going through a lot of sacred places,” Cavalier said.

Currently, the construction of the pipeline is delayed due to several key permits being denied or revoked.

“We need to be mindful of protecting our federal lands from exploration drilling,” Graham said. “Our sacred grounds are very valuable and it's something that our Indigenous communities have always strived to protect. I will certainly be involved in that effort to make sure that the federal government is staying off of our property, staying off of tribal lands, protecting those tribal grounds. Those grounds that are spiritual and very valuable to the communities.”

Both candidates also talked about the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women. Four Indigenous women from Robeson County have been murdered since 2016. Robeson County Sheriff’s have investigated more than 280 homicides since 2008, half of those victims were Native.

“It's clear to me that Indian women are targets. Predators certainly have their eye on Indian women. You can't deny that when we look at the number of missing and murdered Indigenous women,” Graham said. “It's something the feds need to put a greater lens on that issue and put more resources in these communities where these things are happening.”

In 2012, Faith Hedgepeth, Haliwa-Saponi, was just 19 when she was beaten to death and raped by Miguel Enrique Olivares, allegedly. He was charged in her murder last year after DNA evidence found at the crime scene was linked to Olivares.

In 2016, Marcey Blanks was brutally raped and murdered. Her killer has yet to be sentenced. A year later, Rhonda Jones, Christina Bennett and Megan Oxendine were all murdered within weeks and blocks of each other. Their murders, which garned national headlines, have never been solved.

“When it comes to missing, murdered women, we have to stand up and speak out, especially against the government or the police departments who are just not treating the victims or the victims' families with respect,” Cavalier said. “They're not treating them culturally appropriate. The policies that are in place in our government, they're not made for American Indians.”

These are not the only issues important to the candidates.

In her previous marriage, Cavalier was a military spouse for 18 years. She met a lot of Native American servicemen and women in bases across the country. She advocated for soldiers and their families to get the resources and support they needed.

“I understood the sacrifices,” Cavalier said.

Graham spent three decades as an educator. He was also a high school basketball coach. Given this background it’s not surprising that education is an important part of his platform.

“Education is mighty important,” Graham said. “I've always said that if you are a student whether you're in a public school here in Robinson county or a public school down in Hanover county or public school in Brunswick county all those students have dreams. And we want to make sure that regardless of their dream, they have the quality facilities, the technology, all those things at their hand within that classroom. And first and foremost is a quality and qualified teacher.”

Even if Cavalier doesn’t win this time. She’s not giving up. She will run again.

A mentor of her’s said to Cavalier when she was unsure of her future in politics, “We need to hear your voice.”

“That just gives me inspiration. Other Indigenous women uplifting other Indigenous women,” Cavalier said.

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