Helping communities across the state connect their heritage arts and traditions to local development, education, and active citizenship
Fayetteville, Cumberland County, NC
Sandra Whittemore is a Lumbee artist who sews, braids, and creates celebration regalia for Lumbee powwows and dances. She also creates traditional medicines, which she learned along with other traditional skills from her mother and grandmother, all of which are part of her family’s long history in southern North Carolina. “I don’t know how to be anything else,” Whittemore says of being Lumbee.
As a child, Whittemore was prohibited as an Indian from going to theaters or soda fountains. Instead, she became enamored with her grandmother’s antique sewing machine in the closet. “I was 8 or 9 years old when started I becoming curious,” she remembers, and “I took newspaper and that’s the first dress I made…I was 9 years old.” She figured each piece out on her own, and soon people from around town were bringing garments to her mother for Sandra to mend for extra income.
Whittemore began making regalia when her daughter April asked to start dancing and powwows. Unable to find somebody who could answer her questions about Lumbee craft, Whittemore says “I just sat down and started sewing.” She has since taught herself to create beautiful Lumbee and Tuscarora powwow regalia––shawl, apron, and dress, based partly on the clothing common for Indian women from older generations.
Whittemore has incorporated her knowledge of traditional skills into all aspects of her life, particularly healing. As a licensed wound therapist, she understands what is necessary for holistic health and wellbeing. However, she does not sell or promote the medicines she makes, preferring to give them away to those with ailments. She makes creams and salves for healing sores and other injuries, based on her grandmother’s original formula.
As for her inspiration for sewing and creating regalia, Sandra cites her desire to “create beauty.” Using God-given talents is a sign of respect to the Creator, in her opinion, and to honor her heritage, she turns her skills towards the celebrations and preservations of Lumbee culture. And, at the end of the day, it’s a personal practice. “It’s how I get away from stress,” Whittemore explains. “It’s how I get away from the loss of people. I guess it’s my release from trauma.”