Interior Department reverses interpretation of 1956 Lumbee Act
By SCOTT MCKIE B.P.
ONE FEATHER STAFF
The Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, a state-recognized tribe, received an early Christmas gift from the Interior Department’s Office of the Solicitor. In a 19-page memorandum issued on Dec. 22, 2016, Solicitor Hilary C. Tompkins reversed a long-held interpretation that the 1956 Lumbee Act prohibited the Lumbee Tribe from pursuing federal recognition through the Department petition process.
She relayed in her memorandum that a full review was conducted of the text of the Lumbee Act as well as various case law surrounding the Act. “I conclude that the Lumbee Act does not terminate or forbid the Federal relationship and, therefore, does not bar the Department from recognizing the Lumbee Indians by application of the Part 83 acknowledgment process. Accordingly, I withdraw and reverse contrary memoranda prepared by the Office of the Solicitor in 1989.”
Tompkins’ memorandum does not grant federal recognition to the Lumbee Tribe, but it does give them an avenue to now pursue such recognition through the Department.
The Lumbee Act of 1956 states in part, “Nothing in this Act shall make such Indians (Lumbee) eligible for any services performed by the United States for Indians because of their status as Indians, and none of the statutes of the United States which affect Indians because of their status as Indians shall be applicable to the Lumbee Indians.”
Solicitor Tompkins disagrees with the assertions made by previous Department officials. “Over the past four decades, the Department has vacillated in its interpretations of the Lumbee Act. Solicitor’s Office memoranda in 1989 concluded that the Act barred the Department from acknowledging the Lumbee Indians as an Indian tribe through the Part 83 process.”
She went on to write in her memorandum, “Because I find that neither the text of the Lumbee Act nor its legislative history precludes the Lumbee Indians from petitioning for Federal acknowledgment under the Department’s regulations, I conclude that they may avail themselves of the acknowledgment process in 25 C.F.R. Part 83.”
Principal Chief Patrick Lambert said he is happy with the Solicitor’s decision. “Solicitor Tompkins’ opinion further ensures the Lumbee must take the path to meet federal requirements to be considered a legitimate Indian Tribe. This process requires a petitioning group to proceed through a strict test of the merits of its claim to prove it is a historic tribe that many groups falsely claim. This includes proving that it has historical relationships with political bodies and governance over its members with proof for such matters as a native language, customs, ceremonies and traditions historically shared among its members.”
He went on to say, “I have stayed adamant about not allowing the process to be circumvented by political means and will continue to protect the integrity of the processes created for federal recognition.”
Harvey Godwin Jr., Lumbee tribal chairman, issued a statement a week after the Solicitor’s memo was issued, “…the United States Department of the Interior reversed its long-held position that the 1956 Lumbee Act both terminated our existing rights, benefits, and privileges and prohibited the application of future legislation to us as an Indian tribe. This opinion does not grant us full federal recognition, but it does open up additional avenues for us to pursue our efforts.”