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Tribal political activities surge due to Lumbee tribes request for federal recognition


This spring the Lumbee tribe of North Carolina hosted a formal meeting in Raleigh to discuss the update of federal recognition to their tribal members, an issue that the Cherokee tribe is against.

“In politics, historically tribes have come together within the federal government to argue for their rights as sovereign nations. Ultimately they never have agreed with each other. They have been trying to secure this angle so that they can have the ability to exercise their own rights. Not only to their land but also to their cultural identity,” said Anthony Bullard, National Museum of the American Indian Smithsonian curator. 

According to Bullard, the Lumbee tribe currently stands as the largest tribe east of the Mississippi River, with a present population of 55,000 plus tribal members. Well known by the people of the area as the people of the dark water, they have tribal residence in the North Carolina counties of Robinson, Hoke, Cumberland and Scotland. well known by the people of the area as the people of the dark water.

“This argument about federal recognition has been a topic amongst me and my colleagues in the Smithsonian. Ultimately It is well known that the Cherokee have historically been against other tribes having federal recognition in the state of North Carolina, and that reasoning all boils down to money per capita. Whether it be gaming or in relation to the creation of a casino. It historically has had nothing to do with tribal identity or culture. I personally agree with the fact that Lumbees should have federal recognition,” Bullard said. 

Due to the 1956 act passed by Congress, the tribe is currently recognized as a sovereign tribe in North Carolina; however, the Lumbees are not given the benefits that other federally recognized tribes are able to receive. 

“The Lumbee Act that was originally passed by Congress recognized us as an Indian tribe, but it kept us from getting any of the services or benefits that fully recognized tribes are able to get. Just from a historic perspective, we have this Lumbee act which is an injustice to us,” said John Lowery, tribal chairman of the Lumbee tribe.

Lowery said the bill was passed during what is known as the era of Indian Termination, when the United States government was terminating their relationship with tribes. Lowery also attributed the Lumbee tribe to being the only tribe that is in a type of legal limbo where they have a federal law passed by Congress and signed by the president of the United States that says that they are a tribe and cannot receive federal services.

“The Eastern Band’s stance is this: any tribe that wants to become a tribe needs to go through what is known as the federal recognition process through the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Their stance is that we need to go through that process as well because they are equating us to an unrecognized tribe that does not have any federal legislation. Once again we already have this federal legislation that says that we are a recognized tribe. So we don’t need to go through the bureau of Indian affairs because the government has already acknowledged us as a tribe,” Lowery said.

Federal recognition grants certain tribes the ability to operate as a sovereign entity of the United States. In the state of North Carolina only one tribe is federally recognized, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. 

The tribe is situated within the Qualla Boundary, located in western North Carolina. 

“I grew up in Cherokee, North Carolina, on the Qualla boundary. I was literally born and raised in this area among my own tribe. When I was growing up it wasn’t until about middle school or high school when I learned about this kind of tension that exists between the Lumbee tribe and the Eastern Band,” said Meshay Long, Eastern Band of Cherokee tribe member who has a degree in American Indian studies and works with indigenous students in higher education. 

“There were more negative connotations associated with it. When I actually went to UNC-Chapel Hill where there are a large number of native students, primarily Lumbee students, I never had any issues with the Lumbees. They were all incredibly nice and welcoming to me. I am not personally into tribal politics, for me personally I believe that we as native people should be building each other up and supporting each other. As an older adult now I understand what is happening on both sides of the issue, there’s definitely Cherokee Indians who are hardcore anti-Lumbee,” Meshay said.

Meshay said The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians sees the Lumbees as a threat given the size of the tribe, which could mean the loss of power and status amongst state and federal governing bodies.

“One of the subjects that I critically think about is kinda the colonization that has happened amongst native people, and how essentially federal recognition grants sovereignty. Essentially the biggest pull is the status of money and power and how that impedes our tribal relations. It makes me ask the question of how we are supposed to operate under these systems of capitalism. It is more complex in terms that we are fighting in systems that are not meant for us. It is something that in the past was originally meant for our erasure of all tribes in America,” Meshay said.

Tribal Chairman John Lowery said the Cherokee tribe, because of their federal recognition, are allowed to have several resources the Lumbee tribe wants to have access to as well. These resources could be used to help preserve cultural identity, within the use of a culture center, historical curation and cultural revitalization efforts. 

Lowery said they can also expand to economic prosperity efforts, which can span from tribal office financial support all the way to the creation of a well-known casino resort. 

“We are a tribe, and we deserve to be recognized and put onto the same playing field as the other tribes in America. We have federal legislation and we deserve the remainder of that federal legislation that other tribes in America get. What a lot of our opponents, like the eastern band of Cherokee, don’t realize is that we already do have this federal law. So since it was passed during the era of federal termination we do not have access to the services that the eastern band and other federally recognized tribes have,” Lowery said.

During the meeting, the Tribal Chairman presented the recent progress to the current case. The Lumbees are currently changing the name of the bill to The Lumbee Fairness Act.

Lowery said there is nationwide tribal support for the Lumbees from tribes across America. 

According to Lowery, the support went from a mere 18 tribes to 250. Some of which include the Alaska Federation of Natives, Midwestern Alliance of Sovereign Nations, Blackfoot Confederacy, The Catawba Tribe, The Hopi Tribe, The Pequot Tribe, Rocky Boy, Chippewa Cree and many more. 

“For the Eastern Band, we have already been recognized by the United States Congress, which is higher than the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and if we were to go through the process congress still has to turn around and pass a law saying that we can recognize services. At the end of the day, only Congress can change what they did in 1956,” Lowery said.

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