By PRINCIPAL CHIEF RICHARD G. SNEED
The Washington Post Magazine article, “What Makes Someone Native American? One tribe’s long struggle for full recognition”, misrepresents the views of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians on Lumbee claims of being a tribal nation with indigenous members. In short, the Lumbees’ varying and inconsistent claims to tribal ancestry – including Cherokee – demonstrate the dubiousness of their claims to be a tribal nation that preexisted the founding of the United States. Further, the Eastern Band believes that most of the modern Lumbee people cannot demonstrate Native ancestry at all.
Our Cherokee forefathers and foremothers fought to maintain the separateness of our Cherokee lands, language, culture, and government. Our Eastern Band leaders and citizens continue this fight today. We have survived as a separate people because of our willingness to defend our sovereignty—to fight when others have tried to eradicate or appropriate our Cherokee identity, culture, and sovereignty. The Lumbees in North Carolina have been one of the most egregious appropriators of Cherokee identity. The Lumbees have claimed to be a Cherokee tribe and sought federal acknowledgment as a Cherokee tribe for decades. For a time, a school in Robeson County, the home of many Lumbees, was called the “Cherokee Normal School” after the Lumbees claimed to be Indians for the first time. Many groups among the Lumbee continue to claim to be Cherokee tribes. Our leaders and elders fought this attempted appropriation of our Cherokee identity a century ago, and we will continue to protect ourselves from those who would seek to appropriate our Cherokee identity and cloak themselves in it for personal gain.
Our views on Lumbee identity guide our policy position on federal legislation that would recognize the Lumbees as a tribal nation. Our position is that Congress should defer questions of Lumbee tribal identity to the Office of Federal Acknowledgment (OFA) in the Department of the Interior. The OFA has the genealogists, historians, and other experts that can evaluate tribal identity based on evidence – not politics, emotion, or one-sided news articles. The Lumbees have studiously sought to avoid a close look at their tribal and indigenous identity in federal legislation. The pending Lumbee acknowledgment bills would prohibit the Department of the Interior from evaluating the genealogies of Lumbees to determine whether present-day Lumbees have Cheraw or other Native ancestors. Third-party experts in genealogy have published works that have evaluated the ancestries of Lumbees’ pre-1900 ancestors and found almost no evidence of Native ancestry.
This article falls into the trap in the middle of the trail when seeking to answer the question of “Who is a Native American?” The writer focuses on appearance, with the mindset of “When I look at them, they look like Indians to me, so their claims to be Indians must be true.”
No doubt, Native people today have many different appearances. But, tribal nationhood is another matter. Decisions on sovereignty and nationhood must go beyond non-Native perceptions of Native identity. Sovereignty and nationhood, and protection of those established tribes and peoples, should not be decided by non-Native perceptions of who Native peoples are or ought to be. Sovereignty is too important.