By SCOTT MCKIE B.P.
ONE FEATHER STAFF
The Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, a state-recognized group based in Robeson County, is one step closer to achieving a goal they’ve been seeking for over 100 years – federal recognition as an American Indian tribe. The House of Representatives passed H.R. 1964 (Lumbee Recognition Act) on Monday, Nov. 16, and the bill was referred to the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs the following day.
Harvey Godwin Jr., Lumbee tribal chairman, said in a statement, “The Lumbee people have been praying for this day and today’s action in the House brings us one step closer to our goal.”
The legislation was introduced by Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.) on March 28, 2019. Following passage in the House, he released the following statement, “Today’s unanimous and bipartisan vote to pass H.R. 1964 is a long-awaited victory for the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina. I am proud to have introduced this legislation that will right a historic wrong by finally extending the Lumbee Tribe the full federal recognition they deserve. When enacted, the Lumbee Tribe will be a sovereign entity under federal law and have access to federal funding and services that will promote economic development, access to quality health care, and robust community empowerment.”
H.R. 1964, if passed, would set the Lumbee tribal service area for those tribal members residing in Robeson, Cumberland, Hoke, and Scotland counties in eastern North Carolina. The State of North Carolina would have jurisdiction over “all criminal offenses that are committed; and all civil actions that arise” within the tribal land base. The legislation states that the Lumbee Tribe could petition to take some jurisdiction over their lands after two years of the passage of the Act.
The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians has long opposed the recognition efforts of the Lumbee who were formerly called the Croatan Indians, the Indians of Robeson County, and even the Cherokee Indians of Robeson County.
In a statement, Principal Chief Richard G. Sneed noted, “Passage of the so-called Lumbee Recognition Act by the House of Representatives sets a dangerous precedent that endangers the sovereignty and culture of all Native Nations. The group of people calling themselves Lumbees have never provided any substantial evidence of descendency from any of the historical tribes. In fact, over the years they’ve erratically claimed – without proof – affiliations with four different tribes. Even their current claims are disputed by groups within the Lumbee such as the Tuscarora who accuse them of stealing their identity.”
Chief Sneed added, “When such doubts exist, there is an established process in place to examine the historical records and genealogy to validate petitions for federal recognition. The use of Congressional authority to ignore and avoid investigation of such serious questions about the Lumbees’ authenticity is an outrageous injustice to all federally recognized tribes. History and facts must guide the process, not politics. We call on the Senate to reject this legislation and allow the Lumbee claims to be examined through the Office of Federal Acknowledgment in the Department of the Interior.”
The EBCI isn’t the only tribe in opposition. In a joint letter with Chief Sneed dated Nov. 13; Cyrus Ben, Chief of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians addressed concerns to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy.
The letter states, “For over a century, the Lumbees have claimed to be Cherokee, Croatan, Siouan, Cheraw, Tuscarora, and other unrelated tribes but have never been able to demonstrate any historical or genealogical tie to any historic tribe. Instead of demonstrating credible ties to historic tribes, they abandon one claim for another when challenges to their identity are asserted. H.R. 1964 would even prevent a serious review of the Lumbee claims that its current membership has Native American ancestry.”
Rep. Dan Bishop (R-N.C.), Congressman from North Carolina’s 9th district which includes Robeson County where a majority of Lumbee people live, stated, “Members of the Lumbee Tribe have waited decades for the federal recognition and rights they have for too long been denied. My first act in Congress was to sign onto legislation to award the Lumbee their full rights and today I cast my vote strongly in support of the Lumbee Recognition Act.”
For years, the Lumbees were unable to go through the federal acknowledgment process due to an interpretation of the 1956 Lumbee Act.
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.”
A similar bill (S.1368) to H.R. 1964 was introduced in the U.S. Senate on May 8, 2019 by co-sponsors Senators Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Thom Tillis (R-N.C.). Last month, Sen. Tillis said in a statement, “Federal recognition has been a long time coming and I am proud to have worked with President Trump and the North Carolina delegation to get us one step closer to getting this legislation passed out of Congress and signed into law.”
According to information from the Bureau of Indian Affairs Office of Federal Acknowledgment, the Lumbee Tribe doesn’t currently have a petition for federal recognition in process.