People of the Dark Water: The Lumbee Controversy for Sovereignty

“They say we’re not real Indians!” For over 100 years, the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina has been fighting for federal recognition amidst the controversy surrounding their heritage.

The Lumbee tribe is the largest Native American tribe in North Carolina and the ninth-largest tribe in the United States. Their tribal name is derived from the dark waters of the Lumber River located in Robeson County. Lombe is Siouan for the dark river and the Lumbee are known as the People of the Dark Water.

Robeson County, North Carolina is known as “Indian” country and 95% of the people who live there are Lumbee. Their struggle for recognition is about diffusing the stereotype the media has created for Native Americans. The Lumbee tribe does not fit into the pattern of what non-natives recognize as Native Americans. There are no teepees, no display of feathers, and no lavish casino. They have never compromised their culture for their economic survival.


The Lumbee Tribe – Photo Courtesy of Onlytribal.com

Along with fighting for their identity, they have also fought for racial justice, education, eliminating government corruption, and our nation’s freedoms. The Lumbee were the first Americans the colonists depended on to survive the new world. Yet they are still perceived as “second class” Native Americans and still fight for their right to be seen as first Americans. They deserve to be cultural equals among the Choctaw, Navajo, Shawnee and Cherokee.  Their fight for recognition is long overdue.

The Lumbee were the first Native American tribe to be educated.

They have their own tribal council as well as educational and religious institutions, despite dealing with discrimination and the absence of a reservation or federal assistance. Outsiders have continued to deny their identity because their documented history has been clouded in mystery. Colonization of this tribe has limited their legal status and lack of accountability.

Some Lumbee trace their ancestry to the Croatan tribe of Roanoke Island. European settlers in the 1700s later discovered Native Americans along the Lumber River. The Europeans were astonished that some of them spoke English and had English names. Their dialect is rooted in Algonquin and Iroquois languages, mixed with old English as spoken by sixteenth-century colonists. Forty-one surnames of Roanoke colonists appear among the Lumbee today. Their lineage in Robeson County dates back more than 14,000 years. Other families of the Lumbee originate from Cheraw, Waccamaw, Saponi, Tuscarora and Eastern Sioux.


The Lumber River - Chalk Banks Photo courtesy of North Carolina State Parks
Lumber River- Photo Courtesy of NC State Parks

The Lumbee were officially recognized by the State of North Carolina in 1885 and have sought federal recognition since then. In 1956, the United States Congress passed H.R. 4656, known as The Lumbee Act which recognized them as Native Americans, but terminated their status as a Native American tribe. Congress excluded them from receiving federal services provided to recognized tribes through the Bureau of Indian Affairs. In 1987, the Lumbee petitioned the U.S. Department of the Interior for federal recognition. The petition was denied.

Since then, the Lumbee have lobbied Congress and testified in 1988, 1989, 1991, and 1993 for federal recognition by congressional action without success. In 2007, North Carolina Senator Elizabeth Dole introduced the Lumbee Recognition Act. In 2009, US Representative Mike McIntyre introduced legislation H.R. 31 granting federal recognition to the Lumbee. The bill was supported by over 180 co-sponsors including North Carolina Senator’s Richard Burr and the late Kay Hagan. The late Senator Kay Hagan expressed to the committee, “Our bill will enable the Lumbee to combat these trends through access to critical programs within Indian Health Services and economic development programs through the Bureau of Indian Affairs.”

The late Senator Hagan told the committee that Lumbee recognition will not mean less funding for other tribes. “I want to be clear. The Lumbee do not want recognition on the backs of other tribes,” she said. “This bill simply ensures that the Lumbee are eligible for the same services as their peers. Funding for these services will be subject to future appropriations, and the Lumbee will not dilute support for tribes that currently receive federal resources.”

On January 7, 2015, North Carolina Representative Richard Hudson submitted the Lumbee Recognition Act H.R 184 to the U.S House once again. It was the sixth time a bill has been introduced to the federal government to obtain federal recognition for the Lumbee tribe. Hudson said in a press release, “Southeastern North Carolina has made tremendous strides in economic growth, and granting the Lumbee federal recognition has the potential to spur job creation and further revitalize the region to make life better for everyone in our community. The Lumbee deserves to be treated like other recognized tribes.” As of March 2, 2015, H.R. 184 was referred to the subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs but no record of any further action has been documented.  The bill has been stagnant.

The Eastern Band of Cherokees has consistently fought against the Lumbee Tribe for recognition because they view it as a threat to their federal benefits and gaming business. The tribe has been called a bully from other tribes and has been accused of lobbying against other tribes from acquiring land for possible casinos. They currently operate the only two casinos in North Carolina and have made record-breaking profits due to the lack of competition. According to one review by a campaign finance watchdog, the Cherokee gave $1.3 million in campaign contributions over the last three elections and $360,000 to lawmakers in the North Carolina General Assembly. Many of those same lawmakers sided with the Cherokee’s opposition to the Catawba gaming facility.

After more than 100 years of colonization, assimilation and the fight for recognition, the tribe is still here. Today, the Lumbee have more than 55,000 members. The legitimacy of their culture has significantly been impacted by generations of assimilation, external viewpoints from other tribes, and the federal government.

The Lumbee tribe continues to be united in the preservation of their traditions and culture, despite public officials or other native tribes telling them that they are not “Indian” enough.  No one has the right to deny a person’s or tribe’s culture regardless of the depth of assimilation. Yet despite every attempt by mainstream society and government officials to render them invisible, they still continue to fight for their identity and equality among their peers.

To learn more about the Lumbee Recognition Act H.R.184 and contact Representative Richard Hudson to support the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina.

To find out more information on the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, you can visit their educational websites:


By Hope Thompson


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