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“Who’s gonna fill their shoes?”: A Tribute and Lesson from Matriarch Indian advocate and educator Ruth Revels

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Adam Griffin
   Staff Writer

“Who’s gonna fill their shoes” goes the line from George Jones’ famous country song.

The song’s chorus line and title are lamenting the loss of many of the great country singers who changed the landscape of country music. He asks us to imagine life without these great people and asks “Lord I wonder, who’s gonna fill their shoes?”

This article is not a tribute to a country music singer, but a tribute to a wonderful person who touched the lives of so many in so many different ways. Ruth Revels, of the Lumbee Tribe, was a matriarch, an advocate for her native tribe, a community organizer, an educator, a kind mentor and so much more.

She guided numerous people over the years from her own children and grandchildren, to the N.C. governor, Pat McCrory, and N.C. Supreme Court Justice, Paul Newby, who were students of hers at Ragsdale High School in Jamestown Guilford County as well as countless tribal youths and myself.

I was fortunate to have known and worked with Mrs. Revels through a friendship with her grandson and in working on a historical essay on the Lumbee Tribe for a college Native American History course. The time she spent educating and working with a young student, not just to make sure the facts were right but to read every word for English grammar content, was a testament to her devotion and dedication to educating and helping the youth.

She passed from this life on March 14, 2016 at the age of 79. She had just returned from the 41st Annual North Carolina Indian Unity Conference that she and her husband, Lonnie Revels, helped to start over 40 years ago. Right up until the last, she was working to bring about a dream of hers, unity in the Indian community and preservation of their historic traditions.

It is my hope that her beloved Lumbee Tribe and greater native community will live out her legacy, continuing the work that she so nobly advanced. She had the greatest optimism and faith in the youth, believing that those she left behind could do so much to bring about unity among her people in North Carolina and beyond.

Revels was born in 1936 and graduated from UNC Pembroke with an English degree in 1958 and was crowned Miss Pembroke State in 1956. Despite living in Greensboro for a majority of her life, she was a perpetual advocate for the Native peoples throughout the state and especially “down home” in Robeson County.

She penned a famous poem “I Am Old Main” in defense of preserving the UNC Pembroke building Old Main. The poet’s voice became the building’s voice writing, “The walls that hold so many secrets, fears, memories, hopes, dreams and knowledge of those great men and women who were, are and will be the cornerstone of our community… Destroy me, and I tell you, you destroy the very heart of the Lumbee people.”

Mrs. Revels and her husband were a team — they worked to build structures of unity for the Indian community that would last after their own lives. They helped found the Guilford Native American Association of which she was the first director and which began the Guilford Native Pow Wow that brings tribal culture to the triad every year through dancing, singing and cultural engagement.

Since 2003, she was a member of the N.C. Commission of Indian Affairs and the commission’s chairwoman since 2013. For the commission she also served as chairwoman of the Economic Development and Employment Committee; she also served as chairwoman for the N.C. Indian Economic Development Initiative.

Lumbee Tribal Chairman Harvey Godwin called Mrs. Revels a “great Lumbee Warrior… Her death leaves a gaping hole among the ranks of our leaders, but she leaves behind a solid foundation for us to build upon.”

She had a compassionate soul, a kind and caring demeanor, a warm inviting spirit and a beautiful voice. Her words, spoken and written, inspired all who came in contact with them. You never left her without feeling more fulfilled than when you arrived at her carriage.

She was a woman of faith and a lifelong believer in Jesus Christ, being raised in the Union Chapel community of Robeson County. Her Christianity was so intricately connected with her native culture and spirituality, even being baptized in the Lumber River from which the Lumbee tribe takes their name.

She and her husband helped to found the Triad Native American United Methodist Church in Greensboro, N.C. as a way of bringing Christian Indians into fellowship with one another in Christ while preserving their native spirit and its connection to the Christian faith. No matter your faith, if an afterlife exists, if there is a heaven above, certainly this woman has gained admission into the paradise that so many believe awaits the faithful and righteous.

My experience with Mrs. Revels leaves me looking down into my own empty shoes and sorrowfully imagining hers, never again to be filled with her energetic, dancing, tireless feet. I look down into my own shoes and wonder if I can fill them in a way that honors her legacy and the life that she would want me to live.

We all should do this, as the great men and women from the generations preceding us begin to pass away.

Mrs. Revels always believed in the best of people and always wanted for us to live up to the angel that she saw within in each person she looked upon. Her passing leaves a great hole in her family, her locality, her community, her tribe, her state and her country.

When people like Ruth Revels pass away, it should be a call to those of us, the living left behind, to rededicate ourselves to the great cause of improving humanity and bettering the Earth for the generations yet to come.

I will remember Mrs. Revels when I put my shoes on each morning and strive to be better than myself, strive to be my best self, that I might be able to leave this world a better place than I found it, as she did before me.

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