Remembering John ‘Blackfeather’ Jeffries: The man synonymous with Occaneechi
To those who knew him, John “Blackfeather” Jeffries was synonymous with the word Occaneechi.
For decades Jeffries, a past chairman of the Ocaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation who died Tuesday at age 83, tirelessly promoted the culture of the North Carolina based tribe.
“When you thought of Occaneechi, you thought about John Blackfeather,” his cousin Crystal Cavalier said Thursday.
On its website Wednesday, the tribe expressed its sadness and said, “We have lost a legendary Warrior for all Natives across the country; he will be remembered and forever live in our hearts and actions!”
Because of their age gap, Cavalier saw Jeffries as an uncle and turned to him for advice and guidance.
“Johnny was very giving of his time, especially with young people,” said Tribal Chairman Anthony Hayes.
Jeffries mentored dozens of young people formally through programs like the Boy Scouts and many more informally through his role in the tribe.
“Anybody that ever met Johnny never forgot him,” Hayes said.
“John never met a stranger,” Cavalier said.
Hayes and Jeffries shared a passion for their people and sought to uplift the tribe over a friendship that spanned a quarter century.
“He lived and breathed Occaneechi,” Hayes said.
In the late 1990s, Jeffries built by hand a replica Occanneechi village in Hillsborough, near where his ancestors once lived.
In 2018, after it had fallen into disrepair, he was able to watch from the Eno River bank as volunteers reconstructed the “living village” under his guidance.
He spent years hosting and organizing powwows, something he became known for among indigenous peoples groups. He was also a collector of Native American regalia.
According to Hayes and Cavalier, Jeffries’ renown stretches up and down the East Coast, with some of his “museum-quality” regalia housed on former tribal land in Virginia to this day.
“He was hugely instrumental in getting the name Occaneechi out,” Cavalier said.
Cavalier and her husband frequently visited Jeffries at his home. She fondly recalls “Shed Talks” in his backyard, where Jeffries would share stories and little-known history. He could talk for hours, she said, weaving stories of the past with images of the present and hopes for the future.
“Without John to connect the past and present, it’s going to be hard for the community,” Cavalier said.
Jeffires is one of several Occaneechi elders who have died in recent weeks, leaving leaders like Hayes “carrying a heavier burden.”
At the final powwow he attended, Jeffires was given the honor of carrying in the eagle staff. According to Cavalier, the staff holds the spiritual protection of the tribe and symbolizes the tribe’s relationship to the creator.
It is an honor reserved for tribal elders, and it was a beautiful way to remember Jeffries’ final tribal celebrationm she said.
Despite the sorrow of Jeffries’ passing, she believes it was time for Jeffries to go.
“I think he lived a full life,” Cavalier said. “We can’t be selfish.”
“I think his impact will be felt for generations to come,” Hayes said. “I think out actions will reflect all the good that Johnny did for the tribe.”
Jeffries will be honored at a private memorial service.