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December 27, 2010

In Memory of Dr. Helen Maynor Scheirbeck

Helen In May 2009, Helen’s 40-plus-year odyssey fighting for Indian self-determination was recognized by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Dr. Helen Maynor Scheirbeck, longtime champion of American Indian civil rights, pioneer for Indian control of their own education, and passionate advocate for the sovereignty of her Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, died Sunday night, Dec. 19, 2010. She was 75 years old.

"Dr. Scheirbeck's passing is a true loss for North Carolina's Lumbee community and the greater American Indian community," U.S. Senator Kay R. Hagan (D-NC) said in a statement on her passing.

"As a Lumbee, Dr. Scheirbeck was a champion for the full federal recognition that her tribe so rightly deserves. Over the course of her distinguished career, she was a tireless advocate for all American Indians. She began her career working for former North Carolina Senator Sam Ervin, and among her many accomplishments, her influence helped Congress to pass the 1968 Indian Bill of Rights and the Indian Education Act of 1975. Dr. Scheirbeck's contributions to the Indian American community will not be forgotten."

On Dec. 22, Senator Hagan read a tribute for Helen into the Congressional Record:

"Mr. President, last weekend the nation lost Dr. Helen Maynor Scheirbeck – a great civil rights leader and a passionate advocate for American Indian rights.

 Born in Lumberton, North Carolina, as a proud member of the Lumbee Tribe, Dr. Scheirbeck’s passing is a true loss for the Lumbee and the greater American Indian community. A champion for American Indian sovereignty, Dr. Scheirbeck worked constantly throughout her incredibly prolific career to enable future generations of Indian leaders to build healthier and better-educated communities.

In her early work on Capitol Hill, Dr. Scheirbeck served on the staff of North Carolina Senator Sam Ervin, then Chair of Senate Subcommittee on Constitutional Rights. This work helped lay the foundation for the historic 1968 Indian Bill of Rights that extended Constitutional rights and protections to American Indians nationwide. Similarly, Dr. Scheirbeck’s efforts to organize the 1962 Capitol Conference on Poverty helped to ensure that Indian communities were a focus of the nationwide War on Poverty.

Her commitment to self-determination and individual responsibility is further exemplified by Dr. Scheirbeck’s work to empower tribal leaders to govern and educate their communities. Working on behalf of the Carter Administration, Dr. Scheirbeck’s leadership was instrumental in realigning federal policies to support Indian sovereignty. Most notably, her efforts helped to ensure the passage of the Indian Education Act of 1975 and the Tribally Controlled Community College Assistance Act of 1978, which have enabled Indian leaders to provide better educational opportunities for current and future generations.

Working throughout her life to provide a forum for Indian leaders in our nation’s capital, Dr. Scheirbeck was instrumental in establishing the National Museum of the American Indian. As Assistant Director in the early years of the museum, Dr. Scheirbeck guided the Office of Education and its program in Cultural Arts. In so doing, she sought to bring the experience of the American Indian to the National Mall, and to demonstrate the applicability of Indian education models to educators throughout the world.

Finally, much of Dr. Scheirbeck’s life was devoted to the cause of recognition for the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina. Her life’s work helped reverse the federal government’s efforts to terminate relationships with American Indian tribes. Sadly, though, Dr. Scheirbeck’s own Lumbee Tribe still bears the burden of this unfortunate policy, and she fought throughout her life to provide the Lumbee with the full recognition that they so deserve. While Dr. Scheirbeck did not live to see this dream become a reality, her life and work have helped to sustain the drive for Lumbee recognition for decades.

Dr. Helen Maynor Scheirbeck’s presence and contributions throughout Indian country are irreplaceable, and her tireless efforts on behalf of American Indians throughout the country will continue to inspire future Indian leaders for generations to come."


Helen is survived by her only child, Mary L. Miller of Ocean Pines, Md., and grandchildren Samantha Nicole Miller and Michael Jay Miller, Jr., and three sisters.      

The family will be establishing a scholarship fund in her name. Share your memories and express your condolences for Helen Scheirbeck in our comments. 

Read the Washington Post's obituary here.        


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Helen was an extraordinary person who brought remarkable energy and passion to her life and work. When she first came to NMAI, it was instantly clear that she was a real leader, one with the ability to motivate and inspire others. Her commitment to the advancement of indigenous peoples was her great, singular passion, but, in her personal relationships, she brought a similar, though more personal and intimate, commitment to those about whom she cared most. Where others might be authoritarian and rigid, Helen was generous and expansive. And while some could be guarded and cautious, Helen would always cut through the posturing and obfuscating, and get right to the heart of her mission—life, love, good works, and the pursuit of happiness. It was an honor to know her and a joy to be her friend.

Truly fascinating blog.
Helen's work and achievements paved the way for a new purpose.
Much time dedicated to helping others, with no self-gratification.
The Lumbee tribe will continue to prosper from Helens work and many others will see the reasoning behind such thoughtfulness.

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