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Native American Heritage Features Lumbee Entrepreneur

By Eddy Ball
January 2009

Gabbard explained that getting into the winery business
Gabbard explained that getting into the winery business was pure serendipity. She was searching for a way to use a bumper crop of fruit when she came across a book on winemaking at her local library. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Collins introduced the speaker
Collins, above, introduced the speaker and after the talk thanked her as fellow council member Eli Ney presented her with a poster for the event. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

The centerpiece of Native Vines wines remained uncorked
The centerpiece of Native Vines wines remained uncorked - until they were taken off-site for an after-hours tasting. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

The NIEHS Diversity Council welcomed vintner Darlene Gabbard as guest speaker at the NIEHS Native American Heritage Month celebration November 21 in Rodbell Auditorium. Gabbard was introduced by NIEHS Chemist and Diversity Council Chair Brad Collins, host of the lecture and one of the organizers of the event - which also featured a reception in the NIEHS cafeteria immediately after the talk and an off-site wine tasting later in the evening.

Gabbard is a member of North Carolina's Lumbee people, a writer and musician, and a successful farmer and businesswoman. She entertained the NIEHS audience with a unique story about how her Native American cultural heritage was shaped by the forces of modern capitalism to inspire her to create the first American Indian-owned winery in the United States, which she operates on a working farm near Lexington, N.C. In the course of her talk, she also shared stories of her Lumbee childhood and recounted the history of the tribe and its continuing struggle to gain federal recognition.

Gabbard and her family have been producing fruit wines for the Native Vines Winery ( Exit NIEHS label for the past nine years and sell gemstone soaps, crafts and wine jellies, as well their books and music. They live on a 36-acre farm that has been in the family since the original Wachovia Land Grants of the 1750s. Her Native American heritage is reflected in her farming practices, which she describes as "biodynamic farming," and she has made them a central part of her successful business.

Her acute sense of what her customers prefer has helped make her line of fruit and grape wines popular with ecotourists and a number of customers who buy her wines from a growing network of restaurants and retailers in North Carolina. Native Vines produces about 2,000 cases per year, and Gabbard hopes ultimately to double production to meet growing demand.

Producing a bounty of crops without commercial fertilizers or pesticides, the Gabbards rely on their farm animals to provide manure for fertilizer and to help keep weeds under control. Geese and barn swallows living on the farm do their part by eating insects that threaten her crops. They follow the old ways of agriculture in that they plant by the signs of the Zodiac and phases of the moon and perform most of the farm and winery labor by hand.

"We're not trying to control nature," she explained. "We're letting nature control us." In return, nature has been generous to Gabbard - allowing her to flourish as an entrepreneur, pursue her many interests and maintain harmony between her native past and the modern marketplace.

(In addition to Collins, the members of the planning committee for the event were Eli Ney, Angela King-Herbert, D.V.M., and Jerry Phelps)

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