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NC’s Newest Voting Bloc: State Tribes Support Hagan

North Carolina’s large Native population recently saw the state-recognized tribes organize into a voting bloc that could determine the Senate race.

CORRECTION: ICTMN has been contacted by Earl Evans, Vice Chairman of Haliwa-Saponi Indian Tribe, who stated that the "statements, views decisions and/or opinions" attributed to the coalition do not "represent the statements, views, decisions and/or opinions of the Haliwa-Saponi Indian Tribe" as previously, and erroneously was implied in an earlier version of the article. Terry Mitchell, Waccamaw Siouan Tribal Nation council chairman, sent ICTMN and email November 25, which includes the following statements concerning this story: "Our tribal nation has not made any of the claimed agreements, nor have we gave any other tribal nation the authority to speak on our behalf. The statements, views and opinions expressed by the representa­tives of the Lumbee Tribe in the above referenced article are not those of the Waccamaw Siouan Indian Tribe."

There is a huge Native population in North Carolina and with its state-recognized tribes newly organized into a voting bloc, the Native vote could determine the outcome of a key Senate race.

In early October tribal leaders of the Coharie, Haliwa-Saponi, Lumbee, and Waccamaw Siouan tribes and the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation gathered in Pembroke, North Carolina in the Lumbee Tribe’s traditional homeland for a historic summit to discuss important issues affecting Indian country and reaffirm their ties. (Leaders of the other two state tribes – the Meherrin and the Sapony were unable to attend.)

This was the first time in several years that the leaders came together, but it won’t be the last, Lumbee Chairman Paul Brooks said.

“It was important to bring all the leaders to the table to have an open discussion about various issues, because we have a lot of common concerns,” Brooks told ICTMN. “The meeting was informative and one that was needed to address the current political climate. We all want to work together, as one, to get our people back to work and boost the state’s economy.”

Chief Bill Harris of the South Carolina-based Catawba Indian Nation also attended the summit, seeking – and receiving – support for his tribe’s effort to build a casino in the southern part of North Carolina, in one of the Catawba’s six-county service areas. The project would bring an estimated 4,000 jobs to an area of high unemployment. An application to place 16 acres of land into trust is pending at the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The most important immediate outcome of the summit was the tribes’ decision to back incumbent Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan against Republican challenger Republican Thom Tillis. The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI), the state’s only federally recognized tribe, supports Tillis, the speaker of the state’s House of Representatives.

RELATED: Lumbee Could Decide NC Senate Race – Tribe Ignored in Recent Debate

The North Carolina Senate race is one of the crucial seats Democrats need to hold on to in order to keep control of the Senate while Republicans need to gain six seats to take it over. With just days left until the vote, polls show Hagan and Tillis running neck and neck and the outcome of the race is unpredictable.

But the sheer numbers of the state tribes’ new voting bloc may tip the vote in Hagan’s favor. Four Directions, a South Dakota-based nonprofit organization devoted to voter education and mobilization, estimates there are 205,000 Native Americans in North Carolina, including the 15,000 members of the EBCI. Assuming that 60 percent of the 205,000 are of voting age, Four Directions estimates a potential total of 114,000 eligible Native voters among the state recognized tribes’ members. The analysis is based on data from the U.S. Census Bureau. It’s not likely that 100 percent of the state recognized tribes’ voters will turn out to vote, but if even half of them do, their numbers could determine the outcome in Hagan’s favor in this very tight race.

“We’re working hard day and night to get out the vote,” Brooks said. Hagan will appear at a rally the tribes have organized on October 31 at noon in Pembroke, Brooks said.

Asked why the state tribes agreed to support Hagan, Brooks said, “because she took the time to listen to us and learn about our concerns.” One of the most enduring concerns is the EBCI’s opposition to other tribes.

The EBCI has blocked federal recognition for the Lumbee and other tribes for years and has fought the Catawba’s efforts to open a casino in its aboriginal territory in North Carolina. Last year, Tillis and more than 100 House legislators wrote to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell asking her to block Catawba’s land into trust application. Nearly every legislator who signed the letter received campaign donations from the EBCI ranging from $500 to $4,000, the amount Tillis received, according to Follow the Money.

RELATED: Eastern Cherokee Opposition to Catawba Casino Fuels US Senate Race

EBCI Principal Chief Michell Hicks was not available for a phone interview. An assistant offered to forward e-mailed questions to him, but later declined, saying the noon deadline the following day was not enough time to answer the six questions.

But Hicks explained his opposition to the Catawba casino in The One Feather: “We are greatly concerned that this development will negatively impact job growth and revenue at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and for the western region of North Carolina,” Hicks said. The Catawba’s proposed casino is 130 miles away from Harrah’s.

And the EBCI has explained its opposition to federal recognition of other tribes in general in comments filed with the Bureau of Indian Affairs in response to the agency’s proposed new regulations for federal recognition. “The reason we have committed to having our voices heard on this issue is our strong and serious concern that these new rules could open the door to new attacks on our identity as Cherokees and a sovereign Cherokee government,” EBCI Vice Chief Larry Blythe explains in the 21-page document.

With regard to its specific opposition to federal recognition of the Lumbee Tribe, the EBCI questions the tribe’s authenticity. “For example, purchase of land in the 1930's by the Agriculture Department for some of the Lumbee was not an indication that this was done because they were an Indian tribe or that a federal relationship was being established. It was only for economic aid to farmers in a locality, without regard to whether they were Indians,” Blythe writes in the EBCI’s comments.

Lumbee council member Larry Townsend said that questioning a tribe’s identity is a standard strategy of anti-Indian opposition.

“We know who we are,” Townsend said. “We don’t have a problem with the EBCI; they have a problem with us.”

Brooks offered a different explanation for the EBCI’s opposition to the Catawba casino and the Lumbee’s federal recognition.

“It’s greed, baby. It’s greed,” he said.