Skip to main content
Randi Byrd is the Community Engagement Coordinator at the American Indian Center
Randi Byrd is the Community Engagement Coordinator at the American Indian Center

Randi Byrd fingered the delicate string of tiny colorful glass beads around her neck. She made the necklace herself, in the beaded jewelry tradition of her Cherokee ancestors. Beading was her hobby – until she discovered giant pumpkins.

“It’s an addiction,” she said, her eyes lighting up. These aren’t pie pumpkins. These are behemoths grown for competitions and to set records. The state record for a giant pumpkin is more than 1,400 pounds, but Byrd is determined to break that record at the North Carolina State Fair.

“This year is it,” she said confidently.

Byrd incorporates her Native American heritage in this pursuit. The day before planting, she and a friend from the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation were preparing to bless the pumpkin patch. “I live on her land, so it’s only right,” Byrd said. “I always bless the ground before I plant anything. I give thanks.”

Byrd helps others make these cultural connections in her job at Carolina’s American Indian Center. As community engagement coordinator, she helps the center fulfill its public service mission “to truly serve the First People of North Carolina as well as the First People of the south and the east.” She also is available to guide the American Indian students who come to the center, looking for someone to talk to.

For her service to American Indians at Carolina, throughout the state and beyond, Byrd received a 2016 C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Award, one of the University’s most prestigious prizes.

“It is not unusual for her to keep working until 6:30 p.m. or later, after we have all gone home for the day, working with a tribe to finish a grant application, scheduling technical assistance calls during the weekend and being available at a moment’s notice for a tribe, student or fellow staff member,” wrote nominator Chelsea Kolander, an intern at the center and a graduate student in the School of Social Work.

“She is equally dedicated to fostering the success of Native students on campus, often taking time to talk with students about their goals and dreams, eating lunch with them and checking in with them throughout the semester,” Kolander added.

Byrd describes her position as her “dream job.” “I’ve always wanted to work with American Indian people,” she said. “To be able to serve all the tribes in the state is quite unique, and I prefer that.”

Byrd, who grew up in Knightdale, graduated from Meredith College with a degree in sociology. While in college, she interned with the North Carolina Commission for Indian Affairs and continued there for two service terms with AmeriCorps.

flyer_byrdByrd’s major project these days is the Healthy Native North Carolinians Network, a program that promotes active living and healthy eating among the state’s eight tribal nations and four urban Indian organizations.

American Indians face many health disparities compared to the white people of the state, according to data from the latest available report (2010) from the State Center for Health Statistics and Office of Minority Health and Health Disparities.

American Indians in North Carolina are:

  • Significantly more likely than whites to smoke, not engage in leisure time physical exercise and to be overweight or obese;
  • More likely than whites or African Americans to report that they currently had no health insurance and that they could not see a doctor due to cost;
  • More likely than whites to have babies with low birth weight;
  • Twice as likely as whites to die from diabetes, HIV disease, motor vehicle injuries
    and homicide;
  • More than twice as likely as whites to die as an infant; and
  • More likely to die as children or adolescents than either whites or blacks.

Byrd’s approach focuses on the positive, encouraging Native Americans to move more and eat more fruits and vegetables. The goal is to help communities incorporate healthy activities into daily life, using what community members think will work for them. Often that includes tying health activities to cultural activities, Byrd said.

“That’s what has allowed us to survive and adapt,” she said.

One example of incorporating Native American culture into healthy living is the Sappony 5K. Instead of being run on a track or on city streets, this race is a trail run. The Haliwa-Saponi Indian Tribe also sponsors a 5K run on the morning of its powwow.

The Coharie Indian Tribe planted a community garden and gave away 10,000 pounds of vegetables to tribe members. Some tribes have also tried to increase activity with Native Zumba, in which Native instructors modify the popular dance fitness program with American Indian songs and dances.

Tribes in North Carolina also participated in the American Indian Not On Tobacco (N-O-T) smoking cessation program. This version of the already successful school-based program added information about Native Americans’ historical use of tobacco, when smoking tobacco was a special practice, not an everyday habit. “Tradition not addiction” was the message to young American Indians.

In another situation, perhaps infrastructure is the key to impacting health. The Meherrin Indian Nation needed a community kitchen. Starting with only $6,500, they renovated a dilapidated building into a $100,000 kitchen where they could cook and serve food for community events, which then enabled the tribe to preserve culture through the revitalization of ceremonies that require a proper space to prepare fresh foods throughout the year, Byrd said.

“North Carolina’s tribes have shown that they can take a small amount of money and stretch it a long way,” she said. “Native communities are very, very resourceful.”pumpkin_byrd

Part of Byrd’s job is connecting tribes with partners to grow their tribally self-determined efforts. “One partnership includes the North Carolina Folklife Society who worked with tribes to train tribal members on interviewing and documentary skills,” she said. “Then that data is owned by the tribes.”

She also works with non-Native partners to foster health relationships with Native Nations, increasing awareness of Native contemporary societies and values. American Indians are communal. It’s not that Native Americans discourage individual success, but wealth and position are not what define a person. “It’s how we treat each other. Their success is your success, and your success is their success,” she said.

That’s why, if Byrd breaks that giant pumpkin record, you can bet the whole North Carolina Indian Country will be celebrating with her.

Randi Byrd
Home: Durham

Job: Community engagement coordinator at Carolina’s American Indian Center

UNC employee since: 2009

Interesting fact: Byrd placed third in the Yadkin Valley Giant Pumpkin Weigh-Off in 2009 with a 703.5-pound pumpkin.

What it meant to receive a Massey: “I clicked open the PDF and start reading it. I was screaming, and my co-workers didn’t know what was happening, and I wasn’t allowed to tell them. That was fun. I was very surprised. I had to read it over several times to make sure they didn’t send it to the wrong person. Very overwhelmed. And the response from people has been overwhelming.”


By Susan Hudson, University Gazette

Originally published by University Gazette: May 24, 2016

Comments are closed.