It took 100 years and dozens of visits to Washington, but the Lumbee Indians of North Carolina crossed their most significant hurdle yet Thursday in their ongoing quest for full federal legitimacy.
After hours of debate that pitted North Carolina congressmen and Indian tribes against one another, the U.S. House voted overwhelmingly to give the Lumbee a status that could bring hundreds of millions of tax dollars in housing, education and health benefits.
No casino in Lumbee future
The tribe would not, however, be allowed to build a casino — a specific concession made by a House committee earlier this spring.
The bill allowing the Lumbee recognition as a tribe must still pass the U.S. Senate, but backers say its chances of passage are the best yet. They point to Democratic control of the Senate and an ongoing effort by the bill’s chief sponsor, Sen. Elizabeth Dole, a Republican who is working both sides of the political aisle to champion the bill.
But opponents vow to continue the fight in the Senate, where the political landscape is uncertain. Sen. Craig Thomas of Wyoming, a ranking GOP member of the Indian Affairs committee and an opponent of the Lumbee bill, died Monday. And it is unclear who will take his place on the committee, where Dole is pushing a vote on the Lumbee bill.
On Thursday, Lumbee tribal members celebrated the news.
“We were crying and a-hugging and thanking the Lord,” Jimmy Goins, the Lumbees’ tribal chairman, said of the House vote.
“We’ve never had a vote of this magnitude. We just believe this gives us a tremendous amount of momentum going into the U.S. Senate.”
U.S. Rep. Mike McIntyre, a Lumberton Democrat who has championed the bill for his entire 11-year tenure, picked up the vote tally sheet by hand from the House clerk shortly after the 5 p.m. vote, then walked it over to Goins.
The paper read 256-128, a two-to-one margin of support. Goins’ eyes welled with tears.
Lumbees are the largest tribe east of the Mississippi River
Claiming about 55,000 members, the Lumbee tribe is the largest east of the Mississippi River and would be the third largest nationally to earn full federal recognition should the Lumbee Recognition Act become law.
In the first five years of recognition, the tribe could gain nearly $500 million in benefits, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Those would be significant for a community wracked with high dropout rates, high diabetes rates and among the highest unemployment in the state, Goins said.
“This was the culmination of a struggle that had gone on for literally over 100 years since the Lumbee first began petitioning Congress,” he said.
But to get there, the tribe and McIntyre had to endure an intra-state battle with western lawmakers and opposition from other American Indians.
Eastern Band of the Cherokee and the Tuscarora Indians have long opposed Lumbee recognition
The chief of the Eastern Cherokee accused the Robeson County tribe in congressional hearings of using Cherokee heritage to make its case. The Cherokee also own a successful casino that is about to undergo a five-year expansion.
Even within Robeson County, a group of Tuscarora Indians say the Lumbee have stolen their heritage to argue for federal recognition. The Tuscarora say the Lumbee aren’t Indians at all, but rather a group of mixed-race residents with no significant history.
Tuscarora Chairwoman Katherine Magnotta said she expected the House outcome, but she also noted that those opposed made good arguments against the Lumbee.
“I believe it will be turned down in the Senate,” Magnotta said. “I think today just showed there’s strong arguments and a lot of unanswered questions.”
The Cherokee and Tuscarora are joined in opposition to the Lumbee bill by three other N.C. congressmen, Reps. Patrick McHenry, Heath Shuler and Walter Jones.
The proposed Lumbee bill would override 1957 legislation that stripped them of benefits
On Thursday, the House floor was awash in Tar Heel drawl for three hours as lawmakers from across the state sparred about the Indian tribe.
The Lumbee bill aims to overcome obstacles in legislation passed 50 years ago in Congress. In 1957, Congress approved a Lumbee act that recognized its members as Indians but then prohibited them from seeking benefits or federal recognition through the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Even before then, the tribe had sought recognition. It earned state recognition in the 1880s.
“Congress itself put the Lumbee tribe in Indian no man’s land,” McIntyre said.
McHenry, a Republican, and Shuler, a Democrat, rarely agree on much, but they co-sponsored an amendment requiring the Lumbee to go through the normal process within the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs for recognition.
The Democrat-controlled House rules committee prevented the amendment from coming forward, so it wasn’t voted on.
In the debate, Shuler, who conducted youth camps for young Cherokees, questioned whether the Lumbee are Indians.
‘No lumbee heritage’
“There is no Lumbee heritage,” Shuler said. “There is no Lumbee reservation.”
In the Senate, the Indian Affairs Committee has twice approved the bill in the past two Congresses. Sen. Richard Burr, a Winston-Salem Republican, is an original co-sponsor of Dole’s bill and a member of the Indian Affairs Committee. Burr said Thursday he, too, would be working for its passage in the Senate.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Washington correspondent Barbara Barrett can be reached at (202) 383-0012 or