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The largest American Indian tribe east of the Mississippi, North Carolina’s Lumbee, counts 55,000 members and has called the state’s southern coastal plain home for centuries. But to the federal government the tribe exists largely in name only.
Unlike the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in the Smokies, the Lumbee have no homeland held in trust and no glitzy casino.
Instead you might notice on a drive to the beach that U.S. 74 in Robeson County, Lumbee territory, is called American Indian Highway. Lumbee tribal offices are housed in a turtle-shaped building in Pembroke, the heart of their community. A school that opened there in 1887 to train American Indian teachers is now UNC Pembroke.
South of the highway, a state historical marker commemorates the Battle of Hayes Pond, in which armed Lumbees routed Ku Klux Klan members intent on intimidating them in 1958.
Reader Elisabeth Wiener of Durham wanted to know about the history of the Lumbees, their native territory and why they aren’t a federally recognized tribe. She queried CuriousNC, a special reporting project by The Charlotte Observer, The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun that invites readers to ask questions for journalists to answer.
Where to begin? With disputed origins and a 130-year quest for validation as a tribe.
The Lumbee say they descend from mingled Siouan-, Algonquian- and Iroquoian-speaking tribes. Indian communities near what is now called the Lumber River, which flows through Robeson County, were first documented in 1725.
Other theories abound, most famously one that says the Lumbee descended from the Lost Colony of English settlers who vanished from North Carolina’s Roanoke Island shortly after landing there in 1587.
Later studies concluded that they trace back to Siouan tribes including the Cheraw, according to a bibliography in the Encyclopedia of North Carolina. “Evidence suggests that the amalgamated tribe that became the Lumbee was in place in Robeson County by 1750,” the article says.
UNC Pembroke anthropologist Stanley Knick takes an even longer view: recovered artifacts show that Native Americans occupied Robeson County long before mingled tribes fled European colonists for the relative safety of the Lumber River swamps.
“The tendency of Indian people to coalesce into new communities — to adopt Indian people from other decimated tribes, to hold onto their identity as Indians and not to surrender it even though they had to speak English and dress in the European style to survive — this tendency resulted in the presence of the Lumbee community today,” Knick wrote in a 2008 essay. “Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the Lumbee is that they are still here at all.”
North Carolina’s white government has imposed names on the tribe since the 19th century: Croatan; Indians of Robeson County; Cheraw; even Cherokee. A 1952 tribal referendum settled on Lumbee, the ancient name of the Lumber River.
The Lumbees have sought federal recognition, a legal status, since 1888. Recognition would give the tribe the ability to govern itself as a sovereign nation and access to federal benefits, such as money for schools and health care.
When Congress finally acted in 1956, it came with a stinging caveat: the Lumbee would be excluded from federal services and the legal status normally allowed recognized tribes. Since then, numerous North Carolina members of Congress have tried and failed to win the tribe full recognition.
“Recognition is important to the Lumbee because it’s about fairness,” Mary Ann Jacobs, chair of the American Indian Studies department at UNC Pembroke, and a Lumbee, said by e-mail. “We are the only American Indian tribe in the U.S. that is recognized by the federal government, but without services.”
Federal benefits would help the many tribe members who live in poverty, she added. Robeson County, where Native Americans are 41 percent of the population, is the poorest of North Carolina’s 100 counties, according to 2016 federal statistics.
“Recognition is important because it’s about identity, but Lumbees have never been confused about who we are,” Jacobs wrote. “We have always described ourselves in terms of our kinship to one another and our relationship to the townships that also told the story of the lands that we are tied to.”
Most Lumbees live in Robeson, Hoke, Cumberland and Scotland counties. The tribe is governed by a 21-member tribal council and chair. A tribal constitution was adopted in 2001, and a five-member Supreme Court hears cases limited to internal matters. Administrative offices in Pembroke offer veterans and youth services, housing and energy assistance and vocational rehabilitation services.
Tribal officials didn’t respond to The Observer’s phone calls and emails for this article.
Arlinda Locklear, a Washington, D.C., attorney who specializes in federal recognition and once represented the tribe, and is a Lumbee, said her people are among many eastern tribes that the government hasn’t recognized. The reason, she said, has to do with their longer history with white governments than western tribes.
Most tribes gained recognition through Congress when they signed peace treaties or ceded land to the government, Locklear said. But many eastern tribes simply fled the European invasion, which brought disease, disruption and loss of game to hunt. They became largely invisible to white governments, which left few records of their existence.
The Lumbees’ strong desire to run their own schools and “set their own destiny and maintain their own culture,” Locklear said, became the common thread through its many efforts to win federal recognition.
“Native people are at the bottom of the ladder in every social and economic indicator, and non-recognized tribes rank below that,” she said. That status “generates a feeling of being second-class Indians.”
Even at best, it’s not easy to win “acknowledgment” from the federal Department of the Interior. The department has recognized 18 tribes since 1980, its website says, while denying 33 others.
North Carolina’s Meherrin Indian Tribe sought federal recognition in a 1995 petition. The department didn’t issue a proposed ruling denying the petition until 2014, saying the tribe had not proved its “continuous tribal existence” since it was last documented in 1763. The tribe was allowed to add more information to the petition, and no final decision has been issued.
The Lumbee have faced additional hurdles.
For decades the Interior Department ruled that, because Congress awarded the Lumbee limited recognition in 1956, the tribe couldn’t seek full recognition by the department. That policy changed in the last days of the Obama administration, potentially allowing the Lumbee to refile a petition with the department.
But North Carolina’s only federally-recognized tribe, the Eastern Band of Cherokees, has consistently fought recognition of the Lumbee. The Eastern Band descends from Cherokees who refused government orders to leave their homes in the Great Smoky Mountains in 1838.
In response to a 2015 bill before Congress to award the Lumbee full recognition, the Cherokees accused the large tribe of trying to use political pressure to circumvent a process that normally goes through the Interior Department.
In a statement quoted by the Cherokee One Feather, the tribe said it “questions whether the Lumbee can demonstrate that they descend from the Cheraw or any historical tribe. Their decades-long search for a tribal identity underscores this point. Further, we question whether Lumbee individuals — maybe not a single one — can demonstrate Indian ancestry through genealogy from a Cheraw Indian from the historical Cheraw tribe.”
Part of the debate revolves around the ability of recognized tribes, as sovereign nations, to allow gaming. A federal law passed in 1988 allowed recognized tribes to open casinos on tribal property.
The Eastern Band opened its Harrah’s Cherokee Casino in 1997. Profits from that casino and a second one in Murphy, distributed among tribal members, came to more than $12,000 each last year, the Smoky Mountain News reported.
The Lumbee tribal website discounts the lure of gaming, calling it “the least of all motives” for seeking federal recognition. The tribe’s constitution says gaming would have to be approved by a referendum. Most recent Lumbee recognition bills introduced in Congress prohibit gaming.
Locklear, the Washington attorney, said the gaming industry opposes further expansion of Indian-run casinos because “they don’t want competition.”
“I have no doubt that one day the Lumbee tribe will be recognized by the United States,” she said. “I don’t know when or how, and I don’t know if I will live to see it, but it will happen.”