The Lumbee Tribe’s time is now. Maybe.

The Lumbee Tribe’s time is now. Maybe.

The Lumbee have lobbied politicians from both sides of the aisle for years. Photo: Melissa Sue Gerrits/Getty Images

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Dan Bishop remembers crossing through Robeson County, home of the Lumbee Tribe, as a kid on his way to family reunions in neighboring Bladen County.

If you aren’t familiar with these places, you’d forgiven. Robeson County is 125 miles east of Charlotte and a world away, sometimes. And Bladen County is east of that.

It’s an area plagued by floods and poverty, but one where people from the local tribe cling to one big hope: that one day the federal government will recognize them as a tribe at all.

What’s happening: A half-century of efforts have fallen short — including last year, when a bill that passed the House was left out of the year-end Omnibus bill. But now there’s reason to believe recognition is near.

  • A bipartisan bill co-sponsored by Bishop, the Republican from Charlotte, and seven other North Carolina congresspeople from both sides of the political aisle, passed the House this week.
  • Now it goes to the Senate, where both of North Carolina’s Senators have vowed to get it passed.
  • “Last year it was closer than ever,” Bishop told me Thursday. “And this year the momentum feels very different.”

Why it matters: The Lumbee Recognition Act would grant about 55,000 members access to education, health care and other benefits provided to federally recognized tribes.

  • Also, the Lumbee would be able to build a casino on tribal lands in southeastern N.C. as a way to boost the economy.
  • “There is nothing,” state Sen. Danny Britt told the Robesonian last week, “that could provide a boost to the economy of the southeastern portion of North Carolina like Lumbee recognition.”

The intrigue: That part has the potential to tip the gaming balance of power in North Carolina. Currently, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians gathers the biggest chunk of the money spent on live gambling with its casinos and hotels in western N.C.

The Cherokee have for years been vocal opponents of Lumbee recognition, saying the Lumbee have no “historical or genealogical tie to any historical tribe.”

The Cherokee didn’t hold back after the bill passed the House last week.

  • “The group calling themselves the ‘Lumbee Indians’ has changed their story many times claiming affiliation with multiple unrelated tribes but have refused to allow proper examination of any of their claims,” Richard Sneed, the Principal Chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, said in a statement. “Instead, they’ve played politics. If this bill becomes law, it will create a pathway for dozens of other illegitimate groups to successfully follow suit. We join over 40 other tribal nations in urging the Senate to reject this assault on sovereignty.”

Yes, but: In the rest of the state there’s growing support.

  • “I’ve never encountered anyone in my district who says, ‘I don’t think you should pursue this,'” Bishop said.

Flashback: The federal government recognized the tribe “as Indian” in 1956, but stopped short of full recognition. The act actually forbid the Lumbees from having a federal relationship.

  • In recent years, the area around Robeson County only grew more desperate. Hurricane Matthew left residents without homes in 2016, and two years later Hurricane Florence hit them again.
  • About the only reason for tourists to visit the county now is to see the outdoor drama Strike At the Wind! or to munch on a collard sandwich (collards between two pieces of cornbread).

Bishop says he’s not convinced that gaming is the solution to economic woes, but the recognition bill “is just basic fairness.”

Between the lines: Bishop has political motivations to get this done, too. He got lots of support from Robeson County in winning the seat in a special election in 2019.

  • But in 2022, one of his potential Democratic opponents, state Rep. Charles Graham, is a member of the Lumbee Tribe. Graham went viral a few weeks ago with a campaign ad that told the story of the Battle of Hayes Pond, the 1958 showdown in which dozens of Lumbee tribe members booted the Klan from the town of Maxton.

What’s next: The bill goes to the Senate, where it will be met with resistance from members, Republican and Democrat, with ties to the recognized tribes that oppose it.

  • But when I talked to Sen. Thom Tillis this past summer about Lumbee recognition, he said he and Richard Burr were ready to dig in.
  • “We know who stopped it (last year), and a lot of it were other tribes that are all about the money,” Tillis said. “So they better be happy with what they’ve got now, because every one of them that we know, we see the fingerprints, (and) we’re not going to allow a thing to go through the U.S. Senate through unanimous consent until they let the Lumbee Tribe recognition be on the floor.”


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