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Senate Indian Affairs Committee considers Lumbee recognition

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WASHINGTON - The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs held a September hearing about legislation to federally recognize the Lumbee tribe of southeastern North Carolina.

The tribe, which has approximately 53,000 members, is the largest non-federally recognized tribe in the United States. Since the late 1800s, it has tried and failed repeatedly to gain federal status.

In 1956 Congress passed legislation that recognized the tribe and at the same time terminated it, barring it from any future attempts to gain recognition through the BIA.

Senator Jesse Helms successfully thwarted attempts to legislatively recognize the tribe over the past three decades. But Elizabeth Dole (wife of Republican leader Bob Dole) won Helms' Senate seat in 2002, after he retired. Dole fulfilled her campaign promise to introduce a recognition bill for the tribe, making it her first priority.

Representative Mike McIntyre, a Democrat, introduced it in February companion legislation. McIntyre's home district is Robeson County, where most of the Lumbees reside.

Rep. Charles Taylor, a Republican, introduced legislation in March that would allow the Lumbee tribe to petition for federal recognition through the Department of the Interior. Taylor's constituency includes the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, the only federally recognized tribe in North Carolina. The Eastern Band opposes Lumbee recognition.

As the hearing opened, committee Vice Chairman Daniel Inouye appeared briefly to state his support. "I'll do everything that I can to assist Sen. Dole and Congressman McIntyre in securing the passage of S. 420," Inouye said.

Sen. Dole, the first to testify, thanked the Indian Affairs Committee chairman and vice chairman individually. She praised Sen. Campbell for his strong and visionary leadership on Native American issues, and called Sen. Inouye a champion working for the benefit of all Native Americans.

Regarding making the tribe go through the BIA's petition process, Dole said it is a process for tribes that need to establish their legitimacy, but the Lumbee tribe's legitimacy has been established repeatedly, dating back to the late 1800s.

"The federal government has already spent the money and concluded that the Lumbees are an Indian tribe descended from the historic Cheraw Indians. There is no need to waste the tribe's or the government's time and money again," she said.

Referring to a 2001 Government Accounting Office report that said the BIA's recognition process could take 15 years, Dole said: "It's been over 100 years, Mr. Chairman. Let's not make them wait another 15 years. Let's do what is fair, what is right, to resolve this injustice."

Rep. McIntyre testified that his legislation has 225 bipartisan co-sponsors. McIntyre's Chief of Staff, Dean Mitchell, said 218 votes would allow passage if the bill were brought to the House floor. However, in a Republican controlled Congress, it is not certain that the bill would come to the floor. It could come up for a vote under suspension of House rules, which would necessitate a two-thirds majority of 290 votes.

Rep. Eni Faleomavaega, who cosponsored this and earlier legislation to recognize the tribe, gave an emotional apology.

"I felt so disappointed over the years, feeling that I failed in my efforts in trying to erase this sense of tremendous injustice that has been done to the Lumbee Nation," Faleomavaega said.

Hearing attendees applauded him at the end of his testimony, and Sen. Campbell assured Faleomavaega that no one believes he has ever failed Indian people.

Lumbee tribal chairman Milton Hunt told the Committee that his great-grandfather, Everette Sampson, sent a petition to Washington in 1888, asking for federal recognition and money to build schools. Hunt said there have been nine studies of the tribe, and none concluded they were not Indian. "We've been studied to death," Hunt said.

Dr. Jack Campisi, an anthropologist who conducted fieldwork studies for the tribe in the 1980s, detailed the tribe's ability to comply with the BIA's criteria for federal recognition. Campisi said the BIA denied the tribe's previous attempts at gaining federal status because of the size of the tribe and the costs to the federal government.

Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, Aurene Martin, presented the Administration's opposition to the Dole/McIntyre legislation. "We support the amendment of the 1956 Act to authorize the Lumbees to participate in the Department's acknowledgment process," she told the Committee.

Responding to Sen. Campbell's request for an estimate of costs to the BIA and the Indian Health Service if the Lumbee bill passed, Martin said that, given the tribe's large membership, a loose estimate was 15 to 20 percent of the existing budget.

Campbell noted that the United States has never refused to recognize a newly-independent state overseas or any foreign government because of insufficient funds.

"We've got funds to rebuild a nation in Iraq. I think we ought to be able to find some funds," Campbell said, to loud applause from the audience.

Arlinda Locklear, a Lumbee tribal member and an attorney, told the Committee that Martin's 20 percent cost estimate was an exaggeration. In a subsequent interview Locklear said that the Administration is taking a perverse stance, saying that it cannot set the Lumbee tribe's wrong right, because it is such a big wrong.

Tim Martin, executive director of the United South and Eastern Tribes, was an unexpected addition to the panel. Martin backed the Administration, saying that the Lumbees should go through the BIA's petition process.

Locklear said USET's position was a surprise; the organization had not expressed an opinion on the Lumbee situation before now, and at least two member tribes had previously supported Lumbee recognition legislation.