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After more than 100 years, Lumbee Tribe still seeking federal recognition

Most Lumbee Tribe members in North Carolina live in Robeson, Scotland, Hoke and Cumberland counties

The Lumbee Tribe, the largest Indigenous tribe in North Carolina and east of the Mississippi River, is continuing its 135-year-long pursuit of federal recognition through the Lumbee Fairness Act.

The Lumbee Fairness Act was introduced by Sens. Ted Budd (R-N.C.) and Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) in the Senate on February 17. This piece of legislation is one of many attempts at federal recognition for the Lumbee in past years. 

The Lumbee, whose tribal territory is located in southeastern North Carolina in Robeson, Hoke, Cumberland and Scotland counties, became one of North Carolina’s eight state-recognized Indigenous tribes in 1885. 

Three years after gaining state recognition, the Lumbee began pursuing full federal recognition. In 1956, Congress passed the Lumbee Act, which acknowledged the Lumbee as a tribal nation, but denied the Lumbee services and benefits from the government.

“We are continuing to ask Congress to get right what their predecessors got wrong,” John Lowery, the chairperson of the Lumbee Tribe, said.

Though the Lumbee Tribe — which has more than 55,000 members — does not receive the financial resources from the government that other federally recognized tribes do, the tribe works to provide housing, health and education services to members.

“I want people to know that we are a tribal entity, we are a tribal government, we are a government that is self-sustaining,” Lowery said.

Lowery believes that if the Tribe can gain federal recognition status, these resources will increase economic development in the tribal territory, he said. 

If the tribe was federally recognized, it would have access to funds and programs run by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs and would have access to health care through Indian Health Service.

"I am very pleased with the bipartisan, bicameral support that we have in the United States Congress," Lowery said. "I don't know if we've ever had it this solidified before." 

Lowery has worked with Budd, Tillis and Rep. David Rouzer (R-N.C. 7th), the congressional representative for much of the Lumbee tribal territory, to build support for the act.

“It’s just really about political relationships,” Keith Richotte Jr., an associate professor of American Indian law at UNC, said. 

The eight state-recognized tribes are the Coharie Tribe, the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation, the Haliwa-Saponi Indian Tribe, the Lumbee Tribe, the Meherrin Indian Tribe, the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation, the Sappony and the Waccamaw Siouan Tribe.

Tony Hayes, the chairperson of the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation, has worked to push for the Lumbee Fairness Act. The Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation is a state-recognized tribe whose tribal territory encompasses UNC and Orange County.

“If you’re federally recognized that means you have a sovereign piece of land,” Hayes said. 

Hayes, who also works with the NC Indian-Economic Development-Initiative, said that full federal recognition can allow tribal nations to create a revenue stream that state-recognized tribes cannot.

“There’s this whole dividing line amongst the Indian tribes of America based on the treaties of the late 1700s and the early 1800s which allowed certain tribes — due to size, proximity and value to the U.S. government — to be federally recognized,” Hayes said.

Smaller tribes, like the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation — which has more than 1,100 members — have less of an opportunity to pursue federal recognition, he said.

Tribal nations can pursue federal recognition through different avenues — either through Congress, like the Lumbee, or through the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Pursuing federal recognition through the bureau is a long and often expensive process, Lowery said.

“For the most part, we think about the federal government as being the body that mostly deals with Native nations,” Richotte said. “So that's why the United States passes laws like the Indian Child Welfare Act.”

Members of the Lumbee Tribe, like UNC sophomore Tia Hunt, are hopeful but wary about this year’s attempt at federal recognition for the tribe. 

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“This new bill is exciting, but it’s one of many, many, many attempts,” Hunt said.

Hunt said she wouldn’t be proud of the label that federal recognition holds, but would be proud of the resources that recognition would provide the Lumbee, she said.

“It’s deserved at this point, so either give it to us, or don’t,” she said.


@DTHCityState | 

Walker Livingston

Walker Livingston is a 2023-24 assistant city & state editor at The Daily Tar Heel. She has previously served as summer city & state editor. Walker is a sophomore pursuing a double major in journalism and media and American studies, with a minor in data science.  

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