With his sandy hair and blue eyes, Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Jason Rogers is aware you may not recognize his Native American ancestry at first glance, but it has been an integral part of his life and military service.
His grandfather and a cousin, both members of the Lumbee Tribe, served in the Army, and their service inspired him. "I always had that … mindset," Rogers, an engineman, said. "I didn't really see myself staying in North Carolina."
He signed up for the Marine Corps when he was 18, but when his mother became ill, he decided to stay home to take care of her. He took on a few jobs and went to school for a while, but the call to service never left him. He joined the Navy at the age of 24.
Back Down Home
"When I was a kid, I didn't even know what a Lumbee was until my mom told me," he said. "When we would come back down home, we wouldn't really go out in town when I was younger."
"Back down home" is a phrase Rogers uses frequently when describing Robeson County and the town of Pembroke, North Carolina, which is where a majority of the Lumbee Tribe still reside. In fact, Lumbee members make up more than 40% of Robeson County's population. Rogers was born there, and though he moved across the state to Concord as a child, he returned frequently with his mother, who was also a member of the Lumbee Tribe.
It's also not the only phrase that stands out when you listen to Rogers speak. Rogers acquired the Lumbee dialect during his trips to Robeson, which made for trouble when he returned to school. "My English teachers would get mad at me because I'm talking all types of medicine, and they'd be like, 'That's not how you say things.'"
The Medicine Wheel
Historians debate the roots of the Lumbee Tribe, which is now the ninth largest in the United States; while some originally thought they descended from the lost tribe of Roanoke, now many believe they are related to Siouan or Cheraw tribes. Though the state of North Carolina officially recognizes the tribe, fights for federal recognition continue. Today, its members are racially diverse, but they share both a dialect and a culture.
Rogers learned about Lumbee traditions mostly from his mother, Sherry Taylor Rogers, and grandfather, James Taylor, both of whom have passed away. However, it took him a while to fully embrace it.
"I was proud of it, but I wasn't really proud of it till I got the medicine wheel tattoo when I was 18," Rogers said.
The medicine wheel, a circle divided into four different colored quarters, represents the cycle of life. According to Rogers, "red is birth, yellow is growth, then maturity is black and white is obviously death."
"I didn't really know what it meant until my grandfather passed away," he said.
"He Sounded Like Home"
There is a long tradition of Native Americans serving in the military. In addition to serving in high numbers in nearly every major war the United States has taken part in, as of 2012 there were over 22,000 American Indians serving in the military. The Navy includes about 15,000 active duty, reservists and civilians who declare themselves Native American.
As fate would have it, Rogers's service in the Navy would lead him to serving under a commanding officer who was also a member of the Lumbee Tribe.
"His name was Cmdr. Morris Oxendine," he said. "He looks like a Lum and talks like a Lum. Everybody thought that man sounded different, but I thought he sounded like home!"
Rogers's pride was evident as he spoke of the now-Capt. Oxendine. "That was the first time I'd ever seen a Lum in the military," Rogers recalled. "To see him at such a high rank was a good feeling."
The son of a sharecropper, Oxendine joined the Navy as a seaman in 1982 and was commissioned as an ensign in 1996. He gives credit to his Lumbee heritage for his success.
"When I came into the Navy, I already knew the value of teamwork, and I understood the value of working for what you believe in," Oxendine wrote. "The Navy is a team rooted in the values of honor, courage and commitment. I was able to be successful in the Navy because my Lumbee Indian heritage taught me these same values."
Oxendine recognized those values in Rogers from their time together. "He was always working on that old [Landing Craft Utility]," he recalled. "He was a hard worker and an outstanding sailor."
Rogers continues to embrace both the Navy and his heritage. He has no intention of leaving the Navy anytime soon, and he's grateful for the experiences he's had. "I always wanted to travel, see the world. I've been to 31 countries by now. It's been a heck of an experience."
At the same time, he is eager to return to Robeson County for a longer visit as soon as the pandemic allows. "I definitely can't wait to go back down home," he said.