Some claim that NC’s first Buc-ee’s is being built on Indigenous land

The popular convenience store chain Buc-ee's is coming to its first NC location, in Alamance County. But it's sparked a conversation about how to protect Indigenous lands. (Shutterstock)

By Ben McCormick

February 27, 2024

Buc-ee’s, a popular chain of mega-sized convenience stores, is set to build its first location in Mebane, NC. But it’s sparked a conversation about how NC protects, or doesn’t protect, Indigenous lands.

[Editor’s Note: This story originally published at UNC Media Hub, a student-run journalism site.]

In a cornfield just off the Trollingwood Hawfields Road exit on I-40 in Mebane, North Carolina, rows and rows of corn stalks will soon become rows and rows of gas pumps — 120 in total. A gigantic travel plaza will engulf the land. And a big ‘ole animated beaver will smile at drivers as they look up at their new neighbor adorned by buck teeth and a signature red hat.

The first ever Buc-ee’s location in North Carolina is coming to Mebane.

Read More: Stories from NC’s “Trail of Tears”

On Jan. 8, the Mebane City Council voted unanimously to approve the zoning application of the Texas-based chain. Buc-ee’s laid out its plan for the travel plaza, and over 60 local residents were given the chance to voice their concerns or support for the project during the nearly nine-hour meeting. Among the concerns were potential environmental issues, increased traffic and even the possibility that the project site is located on indigenous land.

It’s not easy to confirm or deny a claim about land being historically indigenous. Without evidential backing, or the official word of a Native American tribe, individuals must confront the challenge of presenting proof of their claims.

There are laws regarding the preservation of historically significant lands, including Native American ancestral lands. But under the law, physical evidence is vital in establishing a legitimate claim for protection: i.e., burial grounds or artifacts. However, there is no clear guidance for general claims about historically indigenous land. So, how are claims about heritage and ancestral lands addressed when there’s no physical evidence?

That is the tall task facing concerned citizen Crystal Cavalier-Keck. A member of the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation —  a state-recognized Native American tribe in Alamance, Caswell and Orange counties — Cavalier-Keck is not speaking on behalf of the tribe, but as an individual exercising her right to protest.

She is the co-founder of the 7 Directions of Service, an environmental and indigenous advocacy group. She claims that the land was once part of The Great Trading Path, which was used by the Occaneechi-Saponi and neighboring tribes to engage in commerce. Cavalier-Keck said that it is likely that villages would have existed along the path.

In 1997, the N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources conducted a survey, which uncovered no signs of the Trading Path or any other physical evidence in the area. In January, Ramona Bartos, the Deputy State Historic Preservation Officer, informed Buc-ee’s that they had received a submission for another survey in 2023 for an unrelated project, but they deemed it unnecessary because of the existing 1997 survey.

The 7 Directions of Service believes there should be an updated archaeological survey done in the area. Cavalier-Keck questions how thorough the survey in 1997 really was, and wonders whether an updated search would yield evidence.

Meanwhile, the tribe never established an official stance in opposition to the Buc-ee’s project.  Buc-ee’s declined to comment for the story, but Occaneechi-Saponi Tribal Administrator Vickie Jeffries said that Buc-ee’s did indeed notify the tribe of its plans — although it is unclear when Buc-ee’s made contact.

With projects of this size, it is common for companies to reach out to the tribe to ensure that there are not any burial grounds or artifacts on the land, Jeffries said.

“They don’t just go and build without asking the tribe about the land around there,” she said.

Tribal Chairperson Tony Hayes said Native Americans have long been overlooked during talks of diversity, equality and inclusion — a sentiment shared by Cavalier-Keck. But according to Hayes, the tide has gradually been turning. Over the last 10 years, it has become more and more common for companies to contact the tribe before breaking ground on projects.

There are many elected officials, including city council members and state representatives, who have heard the claims about Buc-ee’s potentially building on indigenous land, but they have maintained their support for the mega store.

N.C. Sen. Amy Galey (R-Alamance) said that she is very concerned with preserving Native American history, but questions why opposition to this project only just now arose.

Cavalier-Keck dismisses questions like these. “It doesn’t matter why we care now,” she said. “It’s just the fact that it’s always been indigenous land.”

But in order to scrap a project of this magnitude, you need proof. Like Galey, the mayor of Mebane, Ed Hooks, questioned why concerned citizens were only just now coming forward. As far as he could tell, all the claims being made were generalizations.

“If Vickie and I were to oppose every property that was built on ancestral land, we would never ever finish,” Hayes said. “Because quite frankly, if you live in North Carolina, you and your parents probably built on indigenous land.”

There are a few state laws that deal with the protection of historically indigenous grounds. G.S. 70-1 states that “private owners of lands containing Indian relics… are urged to refrain from the excavation or destruction thereof … without the cooperation of [DNCR] or without the assistance or supervision of some person designated by [DNCR] as qualified to make scientific or archaeological explorations.”

According to N.C. Rep. Pricey Harrison (D-Guilford), there is confusion about how this law is enforced and how carefully it is applied. The State or some other third party would have to be present to hold the developer accountable, but there is no standing requirement for an archaeological evaluation.

“It seems very murky to me,” Harrison said. “It sounds like we have a lack of enforceability.”

The Department of Environmental Quality coupled with local governments would typically be tasked with enforcing laws related to the preservation of ancestral lands.

There don’t seem to be any general protections on land that is currently or historically associated with indigenous groups. That’s because of how difficult it is to verify this information at times. Often the boundaries would not have been documented, and their existence was passed down mostly through oral tradition. Often, there would need to be physical artifacts or remains, or the tribe itself would have to interject.

G.S. 70-3 protects skeletal remains and artifacts associated with unmarked human burials (including Native Americans). This is an example of a more specific law that could help protect potential ancestral lands, but only if it is evident that burial grounds exist in a certain area. In the case of the Buc-ee’s in Mebane, nobody has uncovered any physical evidence.

“At this point in the research that we’ve done,” Hayes said, “we have found no evidence that this was any part of a burial site, or that any Occaneechi remains were found in the area.”

The tribe has purposefully remained on the sidelines on issues they believe are in compliance with environmental standards, and that do not bring any harm to members of the tribe. They feel as though Buc-ee’s has met those expectations.

Without an updated and thorough archeological survey of the land on Trollingwood Hawfields Road, Cavalier-Keck believes there may be no way to definitively prove or disprove the claims. However, to get help, you need proof. That’s the vicious cycle.

Harrison said she hasn’t experienced much consideration or sentiment expressed for Native American lands during nearly 20 years in the North Carolina House of Representatives. And although Hayes said that consideration for Native Americans is increasing, Harrison believes we still have a ways to go.

To her, it’s clear that Native American communities and tribes are still not being talked about enough. She believes we need to better spell out on how to identify land, but she said she’s not quite sure how that would work — especially in cases without the explicit presence of physical artifacts or remains.

Cavalier-Keck and the 7-Directions of Service are also deeply concerned about the possible environmental detriment Buc-ee’s may bring to Mebane. That area is not only the future home to Buc-ee’s, but also to an array of warehouses and other gas stations. Cavalier-Keck said she is worried about what this level of development is doing to the air quality and the nearby water sources.

“As indigenous people, the environment and our culture is pretty much one in the same,” Crystal’s daughter Coda Cavalier said. “You can’t separate either one.”

The future site of NC’s first Buc-ee’s is a cornfield today.

If the land has to be developed, Cavalier-Keck said she wouldn’t be opposed to building something on the land, as long as it is environmentally healthy. A community market perhaps, or something better fitted for the community. “I don’t know how sustainable you can make a gas station,” she said.

Now that the Buc-ee’s project is greenlit, there’s not much that can be done to stop it. Hayes said the most important thing to do now is stay vigilant. The tribe and its members cannot go to sleep on this issue. They have to continue to make sure Buc-ee’s keeps their word about upholding the tribe’s environmental and social standards.

But for now, the people of Mebane must wave goodbye to that cornfield off Exit 152 on I-40 and say hello to their new neighbor, the giant smiling beaver.

“I think it’s prettier when it’s a cornfield, you bet I do,” Galey said. “I love that cornfield — I think it’s gorgeous. But at the end of the day, it’s next to the interstate. It’s going to be developed. So, why not a gas station?”

Author

  • Ben McCormick

    Ben McCormick is a UNC-Chapel Hill senior from Graham, N.C., with a double-major in journalism and political science with a minor in English. He has worked for a The Daily Tar Heel, North Carolina Sports Network, and the Burlington Times-News.

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