I spent a recent Sunday morning tracking the Lumber River in southeastern North Carolina, following the natural boundary it carves between Scotland and Robeson counties. After driving the length of Riverton Road, I stopped the car on the Old Wagram Highway bridge and stood in the rain, watching the black water flow slowly among fallen trees and overhanging oak branches. It was hard to see where the river ended and the bank began. I knew then why Lumbee Indians talk of the river and its swamps–the two are inseparable.

The Lumber River shares its name with the Lumbee Indians, the largest group of Native Americans east of the Mississippi. Most of the 52,000 Lumbees call Robeson County home–and have for centuries. While historians have been unable to determine exactly when the Lumbees’ ancestors first arrived in the area and what language they spoke, it’s clear that Lumbee culture is entrenched in the county’s landscape of swamp and river.

If you were to look at a topographical map of the region, you would see that the Lumber River is ubiquitous, much like U.S. Highway 15-501 in the Durham-Chapel Hill area. Everywhere you look, there it is. But the features of life in Robeson County are rural, not urban. These are the sandy flatlands of pine and scrub, of river and swamp, where for centuries the Lumbees have built homes in reference and deference to the river and its ways. In Josephine Humphreys’ latest novel, Nowhere Else on Earth (Viking), her narrator, Lumbee folk hero Rhoda Strong, describes the river as “the hidden, tangled, waterlogged heart” of the Lumbee community.

Hayes Allan Locklear, an artist, businessman and lay historian in Robeson County’s Pembroke, a community with a 90 percent Lumbee population, identifies the Lumber River as central to Lumbee tribal identity. “We get our lifeblood from the river and the swamp around the river,” he says.

While some may perceive swamplands as marginal terrain, it is essential landscape to the Lumbees, a watery home where they’ve forged a unique dialect that linguist Dr. Walt Wolfram of N.C. State has been documenting and studying for the past six years. He and his graduate students have interviewed over 150 Lumbees for the N.C. Language and Life Project. While their research doesn’t directly illuminate the relationship between landscape and language development in the Lumbee culture, it does authenticate what the Lumbee Indians and their neighbors have long known: The Lumbees sound different from other folks. As it turns out, the Lumbees speak a unique dialect of English, and this dialect marks their culture as distinctive.

Walt Wolfram’s boyish face and ready laugh belie his salt-and-pepper hair and distinguished career. It is this blend of play and seriousness of purpose that won Wolfram the respect and help of the Lumbee community.

In retrospect, Wolfram’s life trajectory seems to have been leading him to North Carolina all along, where for the past eight years, as William C. Friday Distinguished Professor at N.C. State, he created the N.C. Life and Language Project to research, document and preserve the dialects spoken in North Carolina from the mountains to the coast.

Wolfram’s interest in language and its relationship to cultural context began as a young boy’s embarrassment that his parents, German immigrants, spoke English with an accent. In the 1940s, to be German in America was to be unpopular, Wolfram notes. His was a state of anomie, a feeling that he was never part of the dominant culture. But the positive part of this alienation, Wolfram claims, is that you “feel comfortable as a marginal person wherever you are.”

Wolfram’s outsider status didn’t hinder his work in Robeson County, a tri-ethnic community with a demographic of 40 percent Lumbee, 25 percent African American, and 35 percent European American. In researching Lumbee speech, Wolfram’s team also researched the speech patterns of Robesonian whites and blacks. Comparative linguistic analysis proves that while there are not many structures of Lumbee speech used only by the Lumbee, the Lumbee dialect is clearly distinct.

For example, a Lumbee might say “I am been there” (am is pronounced um), whereas a speaker of the standard English dialect would say, “I have been there.” The Lumbee dialect uses bes as the present of the verb to be, whereas the African-American dialect uses be. And there are words that are unique to Lumbee English: ellick (cup of coffee), juvember (slingshot), and yurker (mischievous child) are a few. On the swamp means “in the neighborhood.” While the pronunciation of Lumbee English is mostly Southern, there are a few exceptions. Like speakers of the Outer Banks dialect, Lumbee English pronounces high tide as hoi toide.

Wolfram’s findings are documented in a video that the N.C. Language and Life Project produced with UNC-Pembroke’s department of Native American studies. Indian by Birth: The Lumbee Dialect aired on UNC-TV in November. A multimedia exhibit about Wolfram’s research is on permanent display at the Museum of the Native American Resource Center at UNC-Pembroke.

But Wolfram’s research is not important to the Lumbees for what it tells them about their own language. It is important for what it tells the rest of America about the Lumbees.

Wolfram’s work emphasizes the localized nature of the Lumbee identity. His graduate students asked people in Robeson County to identify speakers of different ethnic groups in the area. As it turns out, Robesonians can identify Lumbee speakers at 80 percent accuracy. However, while students at N.C. State could easily identify European- and African-American speakers, they could rarely identify Lumbee speakers.

It is this localized nature of Lumbee identity that may be both the tribe’s greatest asset and deficit. As Locklear observes in the documentary, the Lumbee dialect is “how we recognize who we are.” Dr. Linda Oxendine, chair of the American Indian studies department at UNC-Pembroke, echoes Locklear’s sentiment: “I think the dialect is a significant part of our identity as a people and tribal community.” But, as Locklear also notes, “We speak our language around ourselves.”

That is, most Lumbees move easily between the Lumbee dialect and the Standard English dialect. Consequently, it may be difficult for those outside the Lumbee community to see–literally, to hear–the uniqueness of the Lumbee tribe. Wolfram explains, “As an outsider, it’s difficult to appreciate the strong sense of the internal community’s self-definition.”

Such adaptation is a hallmark of the Lumbee people, but it is a double-edged sword.

On the one hand, this adaptation may be responsible for the Lumbee survival throughout the centuries since their first encounter with European colonizers. The Lumbees didn’t simply adopt European ways; rather, they modified certain European ideas to complement their own traditions–and to ensure the survival of these traditions. As Malinda Maynor, a doctoral-level history student at UNC-Chapel Hill and Lumbee Indian, explains in her Web site, Sounds of Faith (www.sfsu.edu/~lumbee), “For Lumbees, ‘traditional’ religion is the Christianity introduced by European preachers during the 18th and 19th centuries. The ‘traditional’ Lumbee language is English. Rarely does the anthropologist or lay person consider that by these very means, communities like the Lumbee insured their own survival as distinct tribes.”

On the other hand, this adaptation has resulted in the federal government’s refusal to grant the Lumbees full federal recognition. The Lumbees’ adoption of English may have influenced their loss of their heritage languages, and as Wolfram notes, if they had a heritage language, they would almost certainly enjoy recognition today.

For over 100 years, the Lumbee Indians have crusaded for full federal recognition as a Native American tribe–and for the entitlements such recognition brings. A 1956 bill passed by Congress recognizes the Lumbees as Indian but does not grant them full status as a tribe. They have, Wolfram explains, “a marginalized status in which they’re recognized but have no entitlements.” In other words, the Lumbees receive no financial subsidies, no reservation land. Perhaps more importantly, they don’t receive federal validation as an authentic Native American tribe.

“Our use of English as a means of survival as Indians has ironically caused the federal government to question our Indianness,” Maynor says. “[It] has been an effective way to bind our community together and keep us going; it’s really only the federal government that sees English as a barrier to our Indianness.”

Even some Native American groups don’t recognize the Lumbees. They are such a large group, they would garner 10 percent of the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ budget should they receive entitlements, leaving a much smaller budget to serve the tribes already recognized by the federal government.

According to Maynor, Wolfram’s “study of the language facilitates our ability to put forward what we understand to be Lumbee identity.” That is, his research places Lumbee language in a framework that the federal government and other outsiders can understand. To Maynor, Wolfram’s research acts a megaphone for what the Lumbees have been saying all along–that they are in fact an Indian tribe.

Wolfram does not “get involved in the internal politics of advocacy. That’s simply not my role.” But he’s hopeful that the Lumbees will be able to use his research in some manner that is helpful to their community. “Research for the sake of research is totally justifiable,” he explains, “but I also feel that our research has important implications for practical social issues–such as the recognition of cultural identity through language–the most emblematic indicator of culture.”

With their newly elected tribal government, the Lumbees may be closer than ever to federal recognition should they lobby again for recognition, as is planned. But whether Wolfram’s research will help the Lumbees satisfy federal acknowledgment regulations is unclear. Dr. David Wilkins, associate professor in the American Indian Studies department at the University of Minnesota and Lumbee Indian, is doubtful. “The Lumbee have been denied full recognition for a combination of reasons,” he says, “and having now had our language scholastically confirmed as a legitimate ‘dialect,’ I don’t think, will add much weight one way or the other.” But he goes on to note a different potential benefit of the research: “If anything, it will serve as a partial salve to Lumbees who’ve had their indigenous identity pummeled by many outsiders for reasons that don’t have much merit. If it does that, it will have done some good.”

Walt Wolfram defines dialect simply as “a distinct way of speaking associated with a region or cultural group.” For the layperson, the term dialect has pejorative connotations, but linguists use it in a neutral way, attaching no value judgments to the word. To linguists, Standard English is not “proper” English; it is simply a dialect. In other words, all dialects are equal.

For a sociolinguist like Wolfram, the social context of language is everything. According to him, the Lumbee Indians are in double jeopardy. They lost their indigenous languages in the process of surviving European colonization, and in recent history, attempts have been made to suppress their dialect. But the preservation of the Lumbee dialect is central to the preservation of Lumbee tribal identity–and perhaps to their chances of receiving full federal recognition.

In Robeson County, Walt Wolfram is “still confronting the notion that Lumbee English is bad English.” As Oxendine remembers, “When we were in public school, we were told that the way we speak is inferior and wrong. We needed to speak ‘good’ or ‘correct’ English. If we spoke that, however, out in the community, we were teased that we were trying to be white, to get above our raisings, or to ‘talk proper.’”

Language is, of course, a powerful purveyor of social attitudes. It’s not surprising that educators have often labeled the speech of marginalized groups “substandard.” After all, prejudice against a dialect is prejudice against those who speak the dialect. As Professor Johanna Rubba of California Polytechnic has written, “The belief that some varieties of English are inherently inferior to others is no different from the belief that some skin colors are inherently inferior to others.”

In time, Wolfram hopes to create a curriculum, as he has done for the public schools of the Outer Banks, to teach dialect in Robeson County schools. Teaching about dialects is one way to confront dialect prejudices. “We must educate kids if they’re going to get it,” Wolfram notes. “My goal is to develop a statewide curriculum, so that every student in the North Carolina public schools would learn about dialects.”

All it takes to debunk what Professor Wolfram calls the “sovereignty of Standard English” is to listen to the Lumbee dialect–its cadences and images. In the documentary, Locklear jokes, “We took English and corrupted it to make it our own.” The result is a language as vital as the Lumbees’ watery namesake: It is the sound of a people who have endured for centuries–and prevailed–along the banks of the Lumber River.