BANDING TOGETHER: Dark Water Rising’s Songs Speak to the Modern Native Experience
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story first appeared in our Summer 2018 / (Im)migration print journal. You can buy a copy here, and we hope you’ll consider subscribing to No Depression in order to receive all of our quarterly print journals and to support music journalism in print and online all year long.
Charly Lowry is sick, but she neither lets that slow her down nor rush her.
The 34-year-old desperately needs a kidney transplant, but Dark Water Rising, the band she fronts, gigs regularly regardless. And she still gets on the mic for three-hour shows, belting with her powerful, soulful voice.
A catheter leads directly to her heart, but Lowry doesn’t let her disease dictate the terms of her art. Rather than rush it out, Dark Water Rising will only release its third LP, Walnut Branch – Chapter 2, when it feels ready.
“Right now, we don’t have any outside factors except ourselves,” Lowry says. “I have my own health issues, but they’re not really hindering us at this point.”
Lowry was raised in Robeson County, which, to the untrained eye, looks like the rest of Eastern North Carolina. It’s low and flat, swampy and rural. Yet this county was — and remains — a refuge for the Lumbee tribe, a rare Native American nation surviving on the Atlantic Seaboard. Lowry and bandmates Aaron and Corey Locklear all hail from Robeson County and neighboring Hoke County (the fourth, bassist Zackary Hargett, is from the Charlotte area, farther west). And while Lowry’s arc has taken her far from home, including a 2004 stint on American Idol (Lowry was eliminated, though fellow North Carolinian Fantasia Barrino won that year), she remains anchored in Robeson County. She lives in Pembroke, commuting to the band house in Chapel Hill every few weeks.
Indeed, the band’s sound and subject matter are tied directly to the rural county where Lowry’s roots run deep — even the name Dark Water Rising infers the Lumber River, which some of her tribe are once again calling the Lumbee River. Sonically, Lowry’s soaring, soul-pop vocals are a cornerstone of the Dark Water Rising aesthetic, implying supreme resilience. Even “Hometown Hero,” Dark Water Rising’s ode to murdered University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill (UNC) student Faith Hedgepeth (who was a member of another North Carolina tribe), is an uplifting number in which Lowry sings directly to her departed friend: “You’ve given me the sweetest memories / you’ll always, always mean the world to me.” The song’s video was shot at a vigil in Hollister, North Carolina. Surrounded by Hedgepeth’s family and friends, Lowry belts, “I’ll be waiting / to see your face again / though I didn’t have a chance to say goodbye / I’ll say hello in the afterlife.”
In the video, Hedgepeth’s dad, his eyes red with tears, holds his daughter’s framed portrait. The song itself admits to the darkness of a young life cut short without succumbing to despair. Between sickness and health, the precarious existence between life and death, Dark Water Rising’s is the music of hope in the face of tragedy and awful luck.
According to Lowry, the history of the Lumbee tribe isn’t one of stubborn survival-in-place, but rather a story of survival through migration and cultural blending. As European colonizers came to what is now North Carolina — and kept coming, wave after wave — remnants of decimated tribes began congregating in the swampland that is now Robeson County. They fled violence, such as the Tuscarora War of the early 1700s, and survived by settling on land no one else wanted. And there they remained, surviving for centuries while European weapons or microbes wiped out so many other indigenous nations.
“We were the only ones who saw the land and were like, ‘Okay, this is it. We see that they’re not trying to penetrate these swampy areas. Let’s stay here, let’s hide out, let’s band together,’“ says Lowry.
“Our lands became a refugee camp in a sense for a lot of other natives,” she continues. “You’ll find that the Lumbee are a mixture of various remnant tribes from that day.”
This is the history of some of North Carolina’s other indigenous populations, Lowry notes. The Haliwa-Saponi of northeastern North Carolina (Hedgepeth’s people) and the Coharie, which Lowry describes as a cousin tribe to the Lumbee, formed when indigenous groups displaced by Europeans banded together. The Coharie, like the Lumbee, have roots in the once-powerful Tuscarora tribe.
“What I’m saying is that all of us are related,” says Lowry. “The Tuscarora tribe was a huge tribe before all of these wars, before they were forced to migrate up to New York. That’s where the recognized Tuscarora tribe is, because they’re part of the Six Nations up in New York.”
Currently there’s discussion among the younger generation of Lumbee as to exactly how they fit into this history and where they come from. There’s such a thing as Lumbee pride, Lowry notes, and she and her peers were raised knowing they were Lumbee. Still, it’s difficult to discern what exactly that means. The name Lumbee wasn’t recognized by the state of North Carolina until 1956, but the name actually changed several times prior to that. In the 1800s, Lowry says her ancestors were called Croatan. The name has spread throughout the region, as University of North Carolina at Pembroke was initially called the Croatan Normal School. There’s also a Croatan National Forest south of the Outer Banks, as well as Croatan Beach (a noted surfing spot) just north of the Outer Banks in Virginia Beach, Virginia.
“When you look at the name ‘Croatan,’ that leads back to the coast and the Tuscarora,” says Lowry. “We find that is the foundations of our people. We’re finding that a lot of our people migrated from that part of the state down to Robeson County after the Tuscarora Wars.”
While the Tuscarora in New York are federally recognized, their Lumbee cousins are not. One cause of this is language: As a tribe made up of remnants of other tribes, the Lumbee can’t point to a single indigenous language to call their own. With no native tongue comes no full federal recognition.
“We call it paper genocide,” says Lowry. “A lot of our people, at one time we couldn’t identify as Indians, so they labeled us as mulatto, and that’s one of the ways we survived a lot of the migrations. At one time we were labeled as free people of color, when really we were native and indigenous to the lands. You lived in a time when it was either black or white or mulatto.”
Yet people like Lowry are studying their ancestry in an attempt to find what was erased in those years. As a Lowry, the singer explains, she can trace her lineage back to Sarah Kearsey, a Tuscarora woman, and Scotsman James Lowry. So if Lowry were to learn an ancestral tongue, hers would probably be a Tuscarora language called Skarure. Lumbee of Catawba or Cheraw heritage would learn Catawba.
What the Lumbee do have, though, is a dialect. As linguist Walt Wolfram writes in American English: Dialects and Variation, the Lumbee dialect blends elements of inland North Carolina speech, coastal North Carolina speech, and elements of Scots and Scots-Irish speech that have fallen out of use almost everywhere else. “The distinctive mix of dialect features … shows how a cultural group can maintain a distinct ethnic identity by configuring past and present dialect features in a way that symbolically indicates — and helps to constitute — their cultural uniqueness even though the ancestral language has been completely lost,” Wolfram writes.
The linguist recognizes two things in particular. First, that if the Lumbee could point to a single historical language that they would have full federal recognition, and secondly, that the dialect is an integral element of Lumbee identity and pride.
“I can be in Wisconsin and hear a Lumbee and know that they are from home,” says Lowry.
Yet when Lowry went to college at UNC-Chapel Hill, which is roughly two hours from Robeson County, she encountered people who couldn’t reconcile her indigenous appearance with her distinctive, countrified accent. She had only recently graduated from Purnell Swett High School, which is predominately Native American. Lowry wasn’t accustomed to anyone looking twice or wondering about her speech. “Where are you from?” they’d ask. “What are you?”
“My roommate was encountering the same things because she’s Coharie,” recalls Lowry. “At home, we didn’t have to worry about that. We didn’t know whether to be offended. We thought it was funny that people were coming up to us and asking these questions.”
According to the US Census Bureau’s 2016 population estimates, Robeson County is 41% Native American, compared with 1.6% statewide. That disparity, and the encounters Lowry experienced after leaving that part of the state, yielded early Dark Water Rising material. The two friends penned “Brownskin,” for example, as a reassuring keep-your-head-up message to indigenous women. “Day in day out it’s the same / living by the standards of a male domain,” Lowry sings over uplifting neo-soul. “Live your own life / don’t worry about the need to please / be the queen of your own society.”
Near the midpoint, though, the song breaks into an alt-rock mode and Lowry shifts from inspirational to fierce. “I get tired of people telling me I ain’t gonna make it / so I use it as fuel to feed my hunger, like food / Like the cake that I’m baking takes time and patience / Once it starts to rise, everybody wants a taste,” she nearly raps, establishing a position of cool, fearless confidence before taking aim at structural poverty and other ways indigenous people have been disadvantaged. In this song, the “brown skin little mama with the country grammar,” as Lowry sings, is powerful.
“I find women from all walks in life that love that song,” she says, “but it got its roots by speaking the message that speaks to indigenous women.”
Finding the Simple Things
When Lowry was 18, she was diagnosed with a serious kidney disease called IgA nephropathy, which causes her kidneys to deteriorate and eventually fail. As such, she has to think about her immediate survival more often than most 30-somethings do. She’s has already had one transplant, in 2009, but now she’s in desperate need of another. As of our February interview, Lowry believed she’d found a donor.
“[The potential donor] was actually my first best friend,” says Lowry. “She made it past the first step, which is checking to see if our bloods mix well together. They did, and now they’re moving on to scheduling appointments for her. I’m pretty optimistic about her. I know that she’s lived a good, conscious life. She’s strong in her faith and she’s ready to do this.”
With a new kidney, Lowry will have no limitations — at least compared to her life currently. No holes in her body, no catheter; all she’ll have to do is take a dozen pills a day to keep her body from rejecting the new organ.
Until then, and upon her doctor’s advice, the goal is to simply stay healthy. Lowry used to love doing squats and leg presses, and she adores the ocean, but because of her catheter she can’t lift weights or swim. She’d like to do yoga, but yoga classes are hard to come by in Robeson County. Beyond that, she has to be very mindful of her diet, as nutrients like potassium or phosphorous can have negative effects on someone with end-stage kidney failure.
Put plainly, IgA nephropathy forces Lowry to pace herself. In an industry where success — or at least a living wage — is often directly tied to weeks or months of touring every year, Lowry knows she physically can’t hustle as hard as some musicians are able to. She has to be mindful of the cycles of her treatment, too. Sometimes dialysis gives her a surge of energy, yet in the weeks before our interview it had been leaving her wiped out.
And sometimes Lowry is simply emotionally exhausted.
“I have days where I’m just really depressed and not motivated to get out of the bed, especially not to pick up an instrument,” Lowry says. “I will lay in bed and run words in my head, melodies in my head.
“On those days, I may be down, but there’s still a small voice in my head that says, ‘Charly, you’ve got to do something today,’“ Lowry continues. “‘You can’t just lay in bed all day. You have to at least come up with a verse. Run words in your head, at least do that.’”
Making plans is part of keeping herself positive when she’s this down. Lowry knows she’ll feel better on the days between her treatments, so she looks forward to these and packs them with things that matter to her. Maybe these plans aren’t musically productive, granted, but she’ll pursue other things that make her happy. Lowry adores fashion and shopping, so she works this into her good days. She may not have much control over the cycle between exhaustion and energy that dialysis brings on, but Lowry exerts control over a different cycle — a good mood can be kinetic and can grow, snowball-like, under the right stimulus. Or, as Lowry says, “One thing of happiness leads to another.”
“So if I’m feeling bummed out, I’ll go shop. I’ll go look at clothes. Then I’ll feel better and I’ll come back and want to work on music,” she elaborates. “I just have to find the simple things, you know?”
And the simple things can include finding a receptive venue a little closer to home. Lowry happily mentions a brewery in the little town of Aberdeen, for one, where friends from Robeson County can catch a Dark Water Rising show without driving unreasonably far. Indeed, in talking about this room and other band stuff — new collaborators, the upcoming LP — Lowry is at her happiest and most enthusiastic. It’s not a deep dive into what it means to be Lumbee or what it means to be sick. It’s just rock and roll.
“We found over years that being Native has opened doors for us,” Lowry says, not about this venue, but in general.
“A lot of times we’re called upon because we’re Indians to play. That bothers us sometimes,” she says. “When it’s a celebration of the culture, it’s not so bad, but a lot of times we would rather be musicians that just happen to be Native versus Indians making music.”