Lumbee Tribe: Federal recognition could come this month
For more than 130 years, the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina has sought federal recognition and the benefits that come with it.
Now as Congress races to complete its year-end work, including passing a spending bill to keep the government open, the Lumbee could be just days from that elusive goal.
There is a push to add federal recognition for the Lumbee into that must-pass bill, supporters and opponents of federal recognition for the Lumbee told McClatchy. Government funding runs out on Dec. 11, though Congress could pass a short-term measure and deal with the larger bill the next week.
The bill and its provisions have not been released, as Congress also wrestles with passing the national defense bill and, possibly, another COVID-19 relief package.
There are about 60,000 enrolled Lumbee, many who live in Robeson, Cumberland, Hoke, and Scotland counties. The Lumbee have been recognized by the state since 1885, but have long been stymied in their bid for federal recognition as a tribe.
“For it to come to fruition, it’ll be historic here,” said Kellie Blue, Robeson County manager and a Lumbee. “I can’t imagine the reaction from our tribe. I see it as a new beginning, a fresh start.”
Trump, Biden back recognition
President Donald Trump and President-elect Joe Biden support federal recognition, and Trump campaigned in Robeson County during the final days of the 2020 election. The U.S. House passed the Lumbee Recognition Act on a voice vote last month and both of North Carolina’s senators are behind a Senate bill to do the same.
Similar measures have passed the U.S. House. But despite being introduced in 12 straight Congresses by Sens. Terry Sanford, Elizabeth Dole and now Richard Burr, Lumbee recognition has never passed the Senate.
This year’s version has not been considered in committee or by the full Senate, yet. If it’s not included or doesn’t pass by year’s end, the bills will have to be introduced again in the next Congress, which begins in January, and start the process over.
“Senator Tillis is encouraged by the bipartisan support Lumbee recognition has garnered, and he will continue working with Senator Burr to pass the bill in the Senate and make it the law of the land,” Tillis’s spokesman, Daniel Keylin, said in an email to McClatchy.
Federal recognition could bring millions of dollars for health care and education to the region. In 2020, Robeson County ranked last among North Carolina’s 100 counties in health outcomes and health factors, the sixth straight year it had that ranking, according to an annual survey from the University of Wisconsin.
More than 42% of the population in Robeson County is Native American, according to Census data. Neighboring Scotland County is more than 12% Native American in a state whose Native American population is 1.6% of the total population.
“The Lumbee are supremely patriotic Americans, God-fearing and washed in the blood and devoted to the liberating cause of education and to civic involvement, proud of their community, loving and welcoming to strangers. They are the best of America, and the only honorable course for the United States Congress is to afford them their due recognition at long last,” Rep. Dan Bishop, a Republican whose district includes Robeson County, said during a House floor speech.
But not everyone is supportive, with two North Carolina tribes publicly working against passage. The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, based in Western North Carolina, and the Tuscarora Nation of Indians are opposed to federal recognition.
Contention over tribal identity, casino
In testimony before a U.S. House committee considering legislation in late 2019, Principal Chief Richard Sneed of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians questioned the Lumbee’s tribal identity, Congress’ role in making the decision and the financial impact on other federally recognized tribes, such as the Eastern Band.
The Cherokee own two casinos in North Carolina. Federal recognition for the Lumbee would open the door for them to also build a casino on their land. Interstate 95 and I-74 intersect in Robeson County, making it an appealing spot to lure travelers to Myrtle Beach and those who are driving up and down the East Coast between Florida and the Northeast.
There is no mention in the House-passed bill of gaming or casinos.
“The Congress should not dive into support for this legislation for emotional or political reasons, particularly without being absolutely certainty that this group constitutes an Indian tribe,” Sneed said, echoing claims made by another tribe in North Carolina.
The Tuscarora, which have been called a “splinter group” of the Lumbee but vehemently disagree with that assessment from the state, wrote a letter to the top leaders of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee asking that they hold hearings on the legislation.
The Tuscarora believe the Lumbee have appropriated their history, saying they share the same genealogies with many Lumbee, and that federal recognition of the Lumbee “would have a direct negative impact on the Tuscarora people,” according to the letter dated Nov. 24.
“We can’t force the Lumbee not to use our history and then re-label it Lumbee,” said Chris Hardison, a Tuscarora Nation representative, in a telephone interview. “We’re not saying all Lumbee are Tuscarora, but a lot of people who think that they’re Lumbee are Tuscarora. Those people are being lied to.”
The Tuscarora Nation of Indians of North Carolina is not recognized by the state, but it’s pushing for state and federal recognition. Hardison said the Tuscarora are repatriating old Tuscarora land in Bertie County, hoping to establish economic development and cultural activities in that area.
The Tuscarora Nation in New York is federally recognized.
“If the Lumbee want to go get federal recognition, it needs to be on record and people need to know there’s another story to that. It deserves attention and it deserves to be heard. I will fight against using Tuscarora history, using Tuscarora culture to set an avenue for recognition for Lumbee under that name,” said Tamra Lowry, a spokesperson for the Tuscarora Nation in North Carolina.
The Lumbee have gone by several different names since 1885: first Croatan, then Indians of Robeson County, then Cherokee Indians of Robeson County and, finally, in 1953, Lumbee, according to the tribe. The Lumbee say they are an amalgamation of various Siouan-, Algonquian- and Iroquoian-speaking tribes, including the Hatteras, the Tuscarora and the Cheraw.
But the Cherokee argued before Congress that the identities “do not correlate with each other” and called for the Department of Interior’s Office of Federal Acknowledgment to make the final decision on the Lumbee’s status.
“The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians would welcome the Lumbees into the family of federally recognized tribes if they can successfully make it through the administrative process at the Department of the Interior,” Sneed wrote in his testimony.
But Bishop in arguing for federal recognition criticized those who were in opposition.
“For the opponents of Lumbee recognition, including other tribes, it has always been about the money. And, of course, there have been fellow travelers who have been motivated by racial prejudice or neglect,” he said. “It cannot be disputed though that the Lumbee have, for three centuries, been a cohesive and distinct community of Aboriginal origins and durable institutions, especially schools, living near the Lumber River.”
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CORRECTION: Previous versions of the Lumbee Recognition Act have gotten markups in committee in the Senate. A previous version of this story was incorrect.
Corrected Dec 7, 2020
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Brian Murphy covers North Carolina’s congressional delegation and state issues from Washington, D.C., for The News & Observer, The Charlotte Observer and The Herald-Sun. He grew up in Cary and graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill. He previously worked for news organizations in Georgia, Idaho and Virginia. Reach him at email@example.com.