North Carolina’s Lumbee tribe took a step towards federal recognition in November, which is Native American Heritage Month. But before recognition can happen, they’ll have to overcome opposition from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in western North Carolina. 

On November 17, the Lumbee Recognition Act, sponsored by North Carolina Representative G.K. Butterfield, passed in the U.S. House. It’s been referred to the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.

Butterfield issued a statement calling the unanimous and bipartisan House vote a “long-awaited victory for the Lumbee tribe, and steps to right a historic wrong by extending the tribe full federal recognition.”

If the bill becomes law, Butterfield wrote, “the Lumbee Tribe will be a sovereign entity under federal law and have access to federal funding and services that will promote economic development, access to quality health care, and robust community empowerment.” 

But just one day after the bill passed, Richard Sneed, the principal chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, and Cyrus Ben, tribal chief of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, submitted a letter to the U.S. Congress opposing the Lumbee tribe’s quest for federal recognition. Previously, after President Donald Trump promised to sign the current legislation into law, Sneed had implied that the Lumbees were poised to commit identity fraud. 

Malinda Maynor Lowery, a noted Lumbee historian and scholar, says the long struggle by the North Carolina Native American tribe to receive their due rights from federal and state governments should not be reduced to “a sound bite about tribe vs. tribe.”

In a series of tweets, Lowery said that opposition to the legislation is a conflict created by the federal government “so they can avoid providing us with the acknowledgement of our sovereignty that we are owed.”

According to the Native American Rights Fund, only tribes who maintain a legal relationship to the U.S. government through binding treaties, acts of Congress, executive orders, and the like are officially “recognized” by the federal government. 

There are currently more than 550 federally recognized tribes in the United States, including some 200 village groups in Alaska. However, there are still hundreds of tribes, including the Lumbees, who are undergoing the lengthy and tedious process of applying for federal recognition.

“We didn’t invent these rules and this process,” Sneed told NC Policy Watch last month. “But we have played by the rules, we have respected the process. We expect other tribes to as well.”

Lowery, who is also the director of the Center for the Study of the American South at UNC-Chapel Hill, said the process is harmful, not only to the Lumbees, but also to the Cherokee and Catawba tribes. 

“To oversimplify this narrative, the U.S. government has subjected ALL of our communities to capricious and hypocritical formulations of identity, and then used those inaccurate definitions to acknowledge our sovereignty,” Lowery tweeted. “This has been most harmful to Lumbees because it subjects us to judgments of our identity that other tribes haven’t had to meet.”

Lowery said that the Eastern Band of Cherokee “never had to meet a ‘heritage’ or ‘culture’ requirement to be acknowledged. But Chief Sneed insists that Lumbees do. This isn’t correct.”

Days after Trump’s October campaign visit to Lumberton, N.C., in which he vowed to support tribal recognition, Sneed issued a statement condemning “political pandering regarding the Lumbee Recognition Act.”

“It’s time to put an end to this charade,” he wrote. “History and facts must guide the process, not politics. The purpose of federal recognition is to empower authentic Native peoples to protect and preserve their cultural identity, not to grant federal endorsement to large-scale identity theft.”

President-elect Joe Biden also said he would support full federal recognition for the Lumbee tribe.

In a recent email to the INDY, Eastern Band spokesperson Ashleigh Stephens said leaders representing over 30 tribes across the United States have also voiced opposition to the legislation.

Sneed and Ben state in their letter that, “for over a century, the Lumbees have claimed to be Cherokee, Croatan, Siouan, Cheraw, Tuscarora, and other unrelated tribes, but have never been able to demonstrate any historical or genealogical tie to any historical tribe.”

“Instead of demonstrating credible ties to historic tribes, they abandon one claim for another when challenges to their identity are asserted,” they added.

Moreover, the leaders say the legislation circumvents “a serious review of the Lumbee claims that its current membership has Native American ancestry.”

 “It is dangerous to pass legislation that short-circuits an established process designed to protect Native American history and identity,” Sneed said.

The tribal leaders say the Lumbees should instead pursue federal recognition through established processes administered by the U.S. Department of Interior, “where experts and procedures are in place, not through an act of Congress.”

The stakes are substantial, with tens of millions of dollars hanging in the balance for the Lumbees, who live in some of the state’s most impoverished counties. 

N.C. Policy Watch reported that federal recognition can be life-changing for tribes, with hundreds of millions in federal aid for housing, health care, and education “for people who have faced government-sanctioned discrimination and genocide for hundreds of years.” Their reporting also notes that federal recognition can unlock a much more powerful engine of economic change for Native American tribes with casino gambling on tribal land.

During the past decade, when North Carolina lawmakers declined to take part in the federal expansion of Medicaid, the Cherokee took over the administration of healthcare for its members and created the Cherokee Indian Hospital Authority using millions of dollars in revenue generated by the Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort, which sits on its tribal lands.

Nonetheless, Sneed and Ben claim that the cost of the bill, if passed into law, would exceed $1 billion and have “devastating impacts” on historic tribal nations that rely on federal funding for healthcare, education, and other services provided by the Indian Health Service and Bureau of Indian Affairs.

“With enormous need across Indian Country related to the COVID-19 response, reacquisition of land, protection of natural resources, and protection of Native women and children, federal swing-state politics has overwhelmed sound federal policy and the priorities of tribal governments with whom the United States has treaties and trust relations,” Sneed said.

Today, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is a sovereign nation that covers 100 miles, with more than 13,000 enrolled members.

Historians report that no one knows exactly how long the Cherokee have lived in western North Carolina. The website notes that artifacts discovered indicate people lived in the region more than 11,000 years ago, at the end of the last Ice Age. Meanwhile, ancient Cherokee tales describe hunts of the mastodon that foraged there.

In 1838, the U.S. government forced more than 16,000 Cherokee to walk to Oklahoma. The forced march, which led to an estimated one-quarter to one-half of participants dying, became known as the “Trail of Tears.”

The Cherokees in the western part of the state today are descendants of those members who were able to hold on to their land, or hide in the hills, or who were able to return.

Today, the 55,000-member Lumbee Tribe resides primarily in North Carolina’s Robeson, Hoke, Cumberland, and Scotland counties. According to the official Lumbee Tribe website, it is the largest tribe in the state, the largest tribe east of the Mississippi River, and the ninth largest in the nation. The Lumbee take their name from the Lumbee River, which courses through Robeson County. Pembroke is the economic, cultural, and political center of the tribe.

The Lumbee Tribe website notes that its members are descendants of “the amalgamation of various Siouan, Algonquian, and Iroquoian speaking tribes.”

Lumbee historians say the earliest document showing Indian communities in the area of Drowning Creek is a map prepared by John Herbert, the commissioner of Indian trade for the Wineau Factory on the Black River, in 1725. Herbert identifies the four Siouan-speaking communities as the Saraws, Pedee, Scavanos, and Wacomas. Today, Drowning Creek is known as the Lumber River, and flows through present-day Robeson County. Many Lumbee people also know it as the Lumbee River.

In 1885, the tribe gained recognition as Indian by the state of North Carolina. But its efforts to gain full federal recognition date back to 1888. The petition sought federal assistance for the tribe and its schools. The petition was denied due to a lack of funding by the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, according to the tribe’s website. In 1956, Congress passed the Lumbee Act, which recognized the tribe as Indian, but nonetheless withheld the full benefits of federal recognition from the tribe.

Prior to the legislation that is now before the Senate, bills were sponsored in 1988 by former U.S. Representative Mike McIntyre of Lumberton and in 2003 by former U.S. Senator Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina.

In an interview in April, Lowery, the historian, said tribal governments are often challenged to prove the legitimacy of their identity, and that it’s hypocritical for others to tell them they don’t belong.

“The idea of pure blood or pure ancestry or ‘how much Indian are you?’ is an outsider’s way of making us disappear,” she said.

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