A couple of weeks ago, I found myself waking up at the ungodly hour of 6:30 am, shuffling out of bed and across campus, and climbing into the very back of Wake Forest University’s Anthropology van. On this particular Wednesday, my professor, several of my classmates, and I traveled two and a half hours to Pembroke, North Carolina in order to meet with several members of the Lumbee tribe. The previous week in class, we had been learning about the history of the tribe as well as their struggle in trying to gain federal recognition from the United State government, and we hoped this trip would allow us to explore another perspective on this issue.
For those who are unfamiliar with this subject, the Lumbee Tribe has been attempting to obtain federal recognition since the late-1800s. Federal recognition means that the government acknowledges the tribe as “Indian” and generally entails many benefits, including tax free status, financial funding for educational and medical programs, and greater political independence. There are two main ways to receive federal recognition from the government: applying to the BIA or petitioning congress. For the BIA process, there are several criteria that the tribe needs to meet pertaining to their historical ties to the land, their unified cultural identity, and their adherence to characteristics which make them “true Indians.” On the other hand, a Native American tribe may petition congress for federal recognition every two years during which the document must get passed both the House of Representatives and the Senate before reaching the President of the United States.
Here is the BIA website if you want to take a closer look: http://www.bia.gov/WhoWeAre/AS-IA/OFA/index.htm
Meeting with Lumbee members helped to illuminate many problems that the tribe has faced while trying to navigate this lengthy process. To begin with, the Lumbee tribe has always been viewed by outsiders as not being “true Indians.” At the time of first contact with Europeans, the Lumbee exhibited many characteristics which were not typical of the “traditional” Native Americans. They farmed, lived in log cabins, and spoke English rather than their own language. This cultural identity was further impacted by the encroachment of whites and length of the exposure that the tribe had with the white culture. As a result of their assimilation, the Lumbee tribe does not fit into the image of the “Noble Savage” which is used to distinguish those who are “true Indians.”
Another problem that the members of the tribe highlighted was the lack of historical documentation. The Lumbee have thus far been unable to find written documentation which definitively proves what where the tribe originate and where they resided during historical times. This requirement is related to the application process for recognition through the BIA which the Lumbee are unable to do because they lack this document. Additionally, the Lumbee are further hindered by the Lumbee Act which was passed in 1956. Within this piece of legislature, the federal government actually did recognize the Lumbee as an official tribe; however, they then proceed to terminate responsibilities, saying that the tribe would not receive any of the benefits of federal recognition. This document prevents the tribe from applying for recognition through the BIA, leaving congress as their only viable option.
Yet even within congress, the Lumbee tribe has been met with opposition and dismissal much of which is due to the large size of the tribe. Lumbee is the largest tribe east of the Mississippi River and currently includes as many as 55,000 members. As such, providing the benefits that are offered through federal recognition would require a large amount of funding and would potential affect the funding of other federally recognized tribes. One of the main opponents to this is the Cherokee tribe, the only federally recognized tribe in North Carolina. Members of the Lumbee tribe explained that the Cherokee often lobby against them in congress because Lumbee recognition would decrease the amount of funds the Cherokee receive from the federal government.
With all of these disadvantages, one might wonder whether federal recognition is worth the effort for the Lumbee. In response to this question, the members of the tribe that we spoke to elaborated on what they wanted from federal recognition. For the most part, the Lumbee said that they did not want or need a large amount of financial support. The tribe has a fairly large source of revenue which is used to provide many important resources for members of the tribe, including housing, power, and services for the elderly. They did say that they would appreciate support from the government with education and medical care programs; however, they did not want “hand outs,”and they didn’t want to live on a reservation. They said that they had seen the negative effects of both options, such as alcoholism and unemployment, and would rather work for their pay and live on tribal land. Rather, the Lumbee want to become federal recognized because they wish to be seen irrefutably as Native American by all. It is more an issue of pride and receiving what they deserve as opposed to the economic gain.
For me, being able to visit members of the Lumbee tribe in person has put a new perspective on this issue and has raised several questions that need be considered. One of my most pressing questions was how to define an Indian. The Lumbee have long struggled with gaining recognition from the public as “true Indians” because they do not subscribe to the stereotypical idea of a Native American. However, the tribe’s differences do not make their historical and cultural identification as Native American any less real. What gets to decide what traits are authentic Indian and which are not? Is it the government officials who are basing their judgments off of oversimplified stereotypes as opposed to real life Native American experiences? Or should other Native American tribes be the judges when they might bring their own personal and economic interests into the discussion? I cannot claim to have a satisfactory solution, yet I do know that this issue needs to be reevaluated so that Native Americans are not denied recognition simply because they do not fit the public’s narrow definition of a “true Indian.”
Although this visit raised many concerns about Native American identity and politics, I also greatly enjoyed meeting modern Native Americans and putting the knowledge that I learned in class into a more realistic perspective. Being able to put actual faces to the articles we read in class and hearing about the Lumbee members’ lives at this moment has allowed me to substitute the imaginary picture of what Lumbee Indians are like in my head with real Native American people that I met. I had never before imagined that some of the Lumbee would speak with a Southern accent, yet given their geographic location, it makes sense that they enjoy eating chitlins and speak with a Southern twang. This trip added depth and dimension to the tribe that I read about in scholarly articles and textbooks, and I would highly recommend visiting the Lumbee (or any Native American tribe) if at all possible to get a real life look at their way of life to compliment classroom learning.
Here is the Lumbee tribe’s website for more information! http://www.lumbeetribe.com/