Published On: Wed, Sep 20th, 2017

Lumbee bills working through Congress

 

By SCOTT MCKIE B.P.

ONE FEATHER STAFF

 

The state-recognized Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina is attempting again to garner federal recognition through two identical bills currently going through the U.S. Congress.

The Lumbee Recognition Act (H.R. 3650) was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives on Aug. 11, 2017 by Rep. Robert Pittenger (R-NC).  That Act seeks to amend the 1956 Lumbee Act and grant federal recognition to the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina.  It also states, “The Tribe and its members shall be eligible for all services and benefits provided by the federal government to federally recognized Indian tribes.”

On the Senate side, Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) introduced the Lumbee Recognition Act (S. 1047) on May 4, 2017.

Under the Acts, if passed, the Lumbee would be able to have land in Robeson County, North Carolina taken into trust, but the State of North Carolina would still have jurisdiction over all criminal and civil matters.  Gaming is not allowed in the bills.

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians has long opposed the recognition of the Lumbees.  “For over a century, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians has raised concerns about Lumbee recognition to protect our separate Cherokee culture and identity,” said Principal Chief Richard G. Sneed.  “The Lumbees sought federal recognition as a Cherokee tribe for 40 years. Today, many groups in the Robeson County area still claim to be Cherokee. Rather than seek a political solution, the Lumbees should respect the Bureau of Indian Affairs recognition process and not try to circumvent it through Congress. If the Lumbees believe that they are an historic tribe that pre-existed the creation of the United States, and that their people can genealogically prove ancestry from that historical tribe, they should have no problems with the established system for federal recognition.”

Vice Chief Alan B. Ensley, who served in Tribal Council for 22 years, commented, “Our Tribe has worked for years to protect and preserve our long relationship with the federal government. That work has included opposing any group that claims to be Cherokee and does not have proof. For years, the Lumbee claimed to be Cherokee and they simply are not. I question why any tribe would claim a cultural identity which is not theirs and why that group would purposefully try to avoid the Bureau of Indian Affairs process.”

For years, the Lumbees were unable to go through the federal acknowledgment process due to an interpretation of the 1956 Lumbee Act.  That changed in December 2016.  In a 19-page memorandum issued on Dec. 22, 2016 from the Interior Department’s Office of the Solicitor, Solicitor Hilary C. Tompkins reversed the long-held interpretation that the 1956 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.”

Solicitor Tompkins 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.”

Earlier this month, Rep. Pittenger met with Lumbee Tribal Chairman Harvey Godwin in the Congressman’s Capitol Hill office.  “The Lumbee Tribe has sought full federal recognition since 1888,” Rep. Pittenger said following their meeting.  “They deserve the same recognition and benefits as other federally-recognized tribes.  This is about fairness and providing equal opportunities to encourage economic growth.”

Sen. Burr stated during a Senate Committee of Indian Affairs hearing on Sept. 7, “Decades of discrimination against the Lumbee have resulted in severe economic and societal consequences for their people.  Robeson County is one of the ten poorest counties in the United States.  The 1956 law has put them on unequal footing compared to other federally-recognized tribes, and it has prevented them from obtaining access to critical services through the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Indian Health Service.  This is simply unjust and immoral.”

At that same hearing, Chairman Godwin stated, “The Lumbee people are seeking a new type of partnership with the federal government.  We will use full federal recognition to create an atmosphere for economic development in rural southeastern North Carolina.  Your support of this bill is a strategic investment in the Lumbee people and our neighbors.”

In response to the Lumbee Recognition Act (S. 1735) that was going through the Senate in 2009, the Senate Committee of Indian Affairs requested that the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) prepare a report on the financial impact to the federal government if the Lumbee Tribe received federal recognition.  The CBO reported back that it would cost $786 million over the 2010-14 period including an estimated $138 million in BIA services and another $648 million in Indian Health Service benefits.

H.R. 3650 has been referred to the House Committee on Natural Resources Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs which has a hearing set on the legislation for Tuesday, Sept. 26 at 2pm.  S. 1047 has been referred to the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs where one hearing has taken place.

A Lumbee Recognition Act has been submitted into the House and Senate in each Congress from the 108th (2003-04) through this year’s 115th.  It has passed through the Senate Committee of Indian Affairs several times, and the House passed the bill in June 2009, but it has yet to receive full Congressional support.