Among all the issues facing our state and our nation, many of them contentious, there’s one that has had significant bipartisan agreement for decades, yet still hasn’t been resolved: full federal recognition for North Carolina’s Lumbee Tribe. But with a little effort and luck, that could finally change.
Though North Carolina formally recognized the Lumbee Tribe in 1885, followed by partial recognition by Congress in 1956, the Lumbee have been struggling for about 130 years to achieve the status that would allow them to receive the federal services and benefits that other federally recognized tribes receive. Legislation has been introduced in Congress 29 times since 1999, but something always seems to gum up the works. They fell two votes short in the Senate in 1992.
We imagine it’s beyond discouraging — it’s frustrating.
But the Lumbee keep trying.
Last week, the U.S. House passed a bill, 357 to 59, in favor of federal recognition. The bill was sponsored by Democrat Rep. G.K. Butterfield, with both Republican Rep. Ted Budd and Democrat Rep. Kathy Manning joining the yeas. Now, the bill goes to the Senate, where Republican Sen. Richard Burr and Sen. Thom Tillis have long supported Lumbee recognition. They most recently sponsored a bill recognizing the tribe in April.
“The Lumbee Tribe has been fighting for more than a century to gain federal recognition and, as long as I’m in the U.S. Senate, I’m going to continue my work to make sure this happens,” Tillis said then.
“Despite broad bipartisan support of this legislation over the last three decades, Congress has yet to act on this important bill. This has been a grave disservice to the Lumbee people and the rich culture the tribe contributes to North Carolina. It’s time to get this done. I urge the Senate to swiftly pass this bill,” Burr said.
The Senate doesn’t do anything swiftly, of course — but it’s long past time to bring this one home.
The Lumbee is the largest tribe east of the Mississippi, with at least 55,000 members who live mostly in Robeson, Cumberland, Hoke and Scotland counties — not the most prosperous parts of the state.
Federal recognition would allow the tribe to acquire hundreds of millions of dollars in federal aid and also support the potential formation of a tribal reservation.
“This federal recognition will help the Lumbee people not only improve their economy, but enhance their health care systems and schools,” Burr said in April.
Their economic development would certainly benefit others in the poor and rural areas of Eastern North Carolina.
Despite support from both Republicans and Democrats — both former President Trump and current President Biden have said they’d sign the bill if it reached their desk — part of the reason recognition didn’t pass in the past, as some legislators made plain, was simply because they didn’t want to spend the money — money that the Lumbee deserve.
The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians — the only federally recognized tribe in North Carolina — has also opposed recognition, fearing that the Lumbee might take a slice of their pie by opening a casino, as the Cherokee have done.
Previous iterations of the Senate bill have included a provision that would prevent the Lumbee from opening any sort of gambling operations.
The current bill doesn’t have that provision, but if adding it assists passage, by all means, do so.
The Lumbee don’t “look” or “sound” like American Indians to some observers, who have questioned their authenticity. But they’ve had a distinct community centered mostly in Robeson County since the 1700s, with their own identity, including traditional surnames and a unique dialect.
“We know who we are,” the Lumbee’s tribal chairman, Harvey Godwin Jr., recently told WRAL — a refrain repeated by many Lumbee — “but we want the world to know who we are.”
Federal recognition would provide resources — and dignity.
It’s long past time the Lumbee Tribe received it. Fully.