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The Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina has been here several times before over the past 130 years.

Recognized by the state of North Carolina in 1885, the Lumbee have been seeking federal recognition since 1889.

Over the years, the tribe has sought recognition through Congress several times. Although versions of the Lumbee Recognition Act have been passed by the House of Representatives, the legislation inevitably dies in the Senate.

In 2020, the House has once again passed the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina Recognition Act. The bill now awaits consideration by the Senate.

Unlike past efforts by the Lumbee, however, this go round has attracted the support of a phalanx of powerful politicians on both sides of the aisle.

For instance, it appears that the Lumbee were the only tribe visited by President Donald J. Trump during his campaign. Both Trump and President-elect Joe Biden have stated publicly that they would support the tribe’s recognition.

Lumbee tribal headquarters is located in Robeson County in the southeastern part of the state. With its approximately 60,000 members, the tribe represents a powerful voting bloc in North Carolina, a much sought after swing state.

The current recognition bill was introduced by Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-North Carolina, and has the support of both Republican Sens. Thom Tillis and Richard Burr from North Carolina. Other prominent supporters include Arizona Democratic Reps. Ruben Gallego and Raul Grijalva. Gallego is chair of the House Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples of the United States and Grijalva is a member.

Lumbee leaders and supporters are hoping that the recognition act will be added to the omnibus Senate appropriations bill that will need to be passed in the coming days in order to avoid a government shutdown.

Although the tribe has more political support than ever among federal leadership, many existing federally recognized tribes oppose their recognition.

The reasons, like the Lumbee’s history, are complicated.

The legal and historical elements of the Lumbee crusade for recognition have been covered extensively in the media and are often framed in economic terms. If the Lumbee are granted recognition, they will be eligible to receive federal funding for health, education, housing and government. They may also be able to build a casino.

Federally recognized tribes that oppose Lumbee recognition are cast as fearful that the tribe will siphon away already inadequate federal funding and draw customers away from other tribal gaming interests.

Although this narrative is partially accurate, it fails to capture the deeply-held emotional sentiments for both Lumbee and opposing tribes regarding recognition.

“This is about dignity and respect for our people,” said Harvey Godwin, Jr. Lumbee tribal chair. “Our elders have been praying for this for generations.”

According to Godwin, recognition would remedy generations of federal indifference and neglect resulting in the loss of their birthright and identity as Indigenous people. Recognition would serve as reparations for years of social and racial injustices suffered by the Lumbee.

Opponents among federally recognized tribes, however, maintain that although the Lumbee have undoubtedly been ill-treated by the federal government and undergone years of racial and social injustice, bestowing them with federal recognition is not an appropriate remedy.

“Federal recognition for the Lumbee tribe would undermine the power of tribal sovereignty,” said David Cornsilk, citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma.

Cornsilk and others opposed to Lumbee recognition, say the Lumbee are unable to trace their heritage to authentic Native Americans.

“They have no language or culture of their own; they have borrowed the cultural identity of tribes around them and from Hollywood depictions of Indians. They are cultural chameleons,” said Cornsilk, a former genealogical researcher for the Department of Interior’s Office of Federal Acknowledgment, the agency that determines eligibility for federal tribal recognition.

Indeed, according to the Lumbee Tribe’s website their ancestors are “survivors of tribal nations from the Algonquian, Iroquoian and Siouan language families, including the Hatteras, the Tuscarora and the Cheraw.”

The Tuscarora Nation of North Carolina, which is neither state nor federally recognized, oppose Lumbee recognition. They maintain that the Lumbee use Tuscarora genealogies to develop a core ancestral group that they erroneously represent as Cheraw.

Cornsilk speculates that ancestors of people now identifying as Lumbee claimed Native heritage as a means to circumvent racist Jim Crow laws enacted in North Carolina to persecute Black people.

“Certainly, the Lumbee are a community but they are not a tribe,” Cornsilk said.

The Lumbee’s history and legal struggle for recognition is a long, convoluted journey through the federal government’s bureaucracy and Congress.

Congress denied the tribe’s bid for recognition in 1889 declaring them too great in numbers and therefore too costly for the government to provide services.

If the tribe is granted recognition today, they would be the largest tribe east of the Mississippi and the ninth largest in the nation.

Oddly in 1956, Congress declared that Native Americans living in North Carolina’s Robeson and adjoining counties “claim joint descent from remnants of early American colonists and certain tribes of Indians shall be known as the Lumbee Indians of North Carolina.” Further the legislation declared “nothing in this Act shall make such Indians eligible for any services performed by the United States for Indians because of their status as Indians, none of the statues of the United States, which affect Indians because of their status as Indian shall be applicable to the Lumbee Indians.”

Arguing for the Lumbee recognition bill in the House, Rep. Jared Huffman, D-California, described the legislation as an example of Termination era policies in which the federal government sought to forcefully assimilate tribes into mainstream society by stripping away benefits and services.

“This gave the Lumbee tribe the dubious distinction of being federally recognized and then terminated,” Huffman said.

In the 1980’s the Lumbee sought to gain federal recognition through the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Office of Federal Acknowledgement lengthy process. The agency determined, however, that since the Lumbee had already been recognized by Congress in 1956, they were ineligible to participate in the process. They would need to return to Congress for full recognition.

Thus began the years of submitting bills to Congress for recognition.

In 2016, however, the Solicitor of the Interior determined that the Lumbee are eligible to petition the Office of Federal Acknowledgement for recognition.

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So far, the Lumbee have chosen instead to pursue recognition through Congress.

“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,” wrote Richard Sneed, Principal Chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in testimony to Congress.

The Lumbee would likely be unable to meet the stringent historical, anthropological and cultural requirements of the federal recognition process, according to Cornsilk.

“Their Native ancestry is tenuous at best,” said Cornsilk who noted that the Lumbee Tribe have variously claimed to be the Cherokee of Robeson County, the Cheraw Tribe, the Croatan, Tuscarora and others.

Tribes that fail to gain recognition forfeit any future efforts, according to the Office of Federal Acknowledgement.

Several tribes including the more than 30-member United South and Eastern Tribes, Inc., an intertribal council, the Mississippi Choctaw, Cheyenne River Sioux of South Dakota, the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in North Carolina, the Rosebud Sioux Tribe of South Dakota as well as the Great Plains Tribal Chairman’s Association, Inc., have written letters to members of Congress opposing the Lumbee tribe’s recognition.

In a letter to the Subcommittee on the Indigenous Peoples of the United States, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin, Jr. wrote that the Lumbee should go through the Interior’s Office of Federal Acknowledgement for recognition.

“The Office of Federal Acknowledgement’s process applies uniform methodology to every petitioning group seeking federal recognition. The process ensures that all federally recognized Indian tribes are, in fact, Indian tribes as defined by federal law. As the elected leader of the largest sovereign Indian nation in the U.S., I take our sovereignty, our way of life and our unique identity as Cherokee people seriously.

“I reject any and all attempts to threaten our government-to-government relationship with the U.S. and the sovereignty we have maintained since time immemorial,” he wrote.

Paul Moorehead, attorney for the Lumbee Tribe, said the following tribes and organizations have written letters of support for the Lumbee: the Catawba Indian Nation of South Carolina, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, the Baltimore American Indian Center, the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, the North Carolina General Assembly, the North Carolina Commission on Indian Affairs, the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, Pembroke Area Chamber of Commerce, the Tunica Biloxi Tribe of Louisiana, the Wampanoag Tribe of Gayhead in Massachusetts, Winyan Rivers of North Carolina and the Narragansett Indian Tribe of Rhode Island.

It’s about money

In support of Lumbee recognition, Rep. Dan Bishop, R-North Carolina, said, “For the opponents of Lumbee recognition, including other tribes, it has always been about the money.”

Interest in funding, however, applies to both sides of the Lumbee recognition issue.

With recognition, the Lumbee stand to gain millions of federal dollars for health care, education, housing and other services. Robeson County with 42 percent of its population listed as Native American, ranked last in North Carolina for health outcomes, according to a survey from the University of Wisconsin.

Lawrence Locklear, Lumbee tribal member and associate professor of American Studies at the University of North Carolina in Pembroke told, “The federal government doesn’t provide a lot of funding for Indian communities and there are strings attached to it.”

“But with unrestricted casino monies, you can spend that ever how you want to,” Locklear said. “If you want to start a business you can. If you want to give per capita checks to tribal members, you can.”

Locklear and other Lumbee believe that the Eastern Band of Cherokee oppose their recognition due to fear of losing gaming dollars at their lucrative casino operations. The Eastern Band of Cherokee are currently the only federally recognized tribe in North Carolina.

The tribe is opposing a plan by the Catawba Nation to build a casino in North Carolina in King’s Mountain, according to previous stories reported by Joseph for Indian Country Today.

“The Cherokee Nation (of Oklahoma) has no concerns regarding losing gaming dollars to the Lumbee,” Cornsilk said.

“This is a matter of broad importance to tribes; if politics start to decide who is a tribe and who isn’t, our nation-to-nation relationship with the U.S. government gets watered down,” he said.

Concetta Bullard, of the Lumbee Tribe. (photo courtesy Concetta Bullard)

The fight for federal recognition has become a main part of Lumbee identity, according to Concetta Bullard of the Lumbee Tribe.

“We’ve been fighting for federal recognition since the 19th century,” said Bullard, a program director at University of North Carolina in Pembroke.

“Gaining recognition will reflect our resilience and perseverance. It will provide respect and homage for those who paved the way for us,” she said.

In testimony before the House Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples of the U.S., Sneed said, “The Lumbees have cloaked themselves in these tribal identities in a century-long quest for federal recognition as an Indian tribe.”

“Even since the last Congress, the Lumbees have changed again from identifying themselves as the Lumbee Tribe of Cheraw Indians to the more general Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina,” he said. “Congress should not reward this identity shopping with federal recognition and should not sanction the appropriation of Cherokee history, culture and sovereignty.”

Rep. Grijalva disagreed.

“We also heard that Lumbee cannot be a real tribe because they’re descended from multiple tribal groups, and that has nothing to do with the ability to be federally recognized,” Grijalva said.

“The Indian Reorganization Act allows any group of Native Americans who are living together, regardless of historical tribal affiliation, to adopt a Constitution, organize a tribal government, and thereby become federally recognized. Again, that is not a reason not to.”

According to Cornsilk, however, granting recognition to the Lumbee would pave the way for hundreds of unaffiliated groups claiming Native heritage whose claims are far more spurious than those of the Lumbee.

Godwin says he prefers not to criticize another tribe. “If we do get recognized though, the other tribes won’t have a better friend than the Lumbee,” he said.

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Mary Annette Pember, citizen of the Red Cliff Ojibwe tribe, is national correspondent for Indian Country Today. On Twitter: @mapember. Based in Cincinnati, Ohio. Pember loves film, books and jingle dress dancing.

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