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Lumbee recognition deadline looms in Congress

Published: Dec. 10, 2020 at 3:10 PM EST|Updated: Dec. 10, 2020 at 5:02 PM EST
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Patience and persistence may finally pay-off for a North Carolina tribe, after 132 years of waiting. But, the push for recognition will drag on if Congress doesn’t act soon.

It’s a race against the clock, as lawmakers spend the final days of the term wrangling over the budget and another potential round of Coronavirus relief. The chairman of North Carolina’s Lumbee tribe hopes Congress doesn’t forget them in the last-minute rush.

“I wouldn’t say very confident,” Chairman Harvey Godwin Jr. said when asked of the prospects for recognition this year, “very hopeful.”

The Lumbee first began seeking federal recognition and the resources that come with it in 1888. If granted, their nearly 60,000 members would become the largest recognized tribe East of the Mississippi.

Godwin said that would eventually help drive economic development and deliver better services, like health care and education. “But, the immediate thing for our people will be a sense of pride and dignity that they’ve been long awaiting,” Godwin noted.

Every U.S. lawmaker from North Carolina supports the effort and the House unanimously voted in the tribe’s favor last month.

“We cannot have a situation where one tribe, one very large tribe, is singled out for discriminatory treatment by the United States government,” said. Rep. Dan Bishop (R-N.C.) of why action is needed.

The Lumbee are closer to gaining recognition than ever before but will face a significant setback if Congress and the president don’t fully sign-off before January. Insiders said tacking recognition onto the must-pass budget bill represents the Lumbee’s best at this point.

North Carolina’s only currently federally-recognized tribe, the Eastern Band of Cherokee, would prefer Congress drop the issue.

“There’s an end-around happening for political reasons,” said Eastern Band of Cherokee Principal Chief Richard Sneed of the Congressional recogntion push, “all we’re asking is that politics not play a role in this.”

Sneed argues President Donald Trump and President-elect Joe Biden based their support for the Lumbee on winning votes, not the tribe’s case.

Sneed said recognition should be determined by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and its criteria, not lawmakers. Congress created that process in 1978.

“This isn’t personal,” Sneed said of his tribe’s opposition to Congress recognizing the Lumbee, “everybody I’ve ever met from the Lumbee tribe are some of the finest people I’ve ever met. They’re very kind, very generous, very caring people.”

If the B.I.A.’s often decades-long process is fundamentally-flawed – as many inside Congress and outside experts suggest – Sneed said it’s on lawmakers to fix that broken bureaucracy. The Lumbee have previously pursued that path to recognition but were stymied by a 1956 Act which recognized the tribe as Indian but denied federal benefits. An executive directive penned during President Obama’s second term has re-opened that path.

Other tribes, like Montana’s Little Shell -- recognized by Congress one year ago -- are prepared to welcome the Lumbee with open arms.

“I wish tribes would stop trying to out Indian each other,” said Little Shell Chairman Gerald Gray.

Gray said, like the Lumbee, bureaucrats and other tribes questioned their culture, heritage, and native authenticity for more than 120 years. Ultimately, the 600,000 documents they provided as evidence didn’t sway the B.I.A. but did convince almost every member of Congress.

As for the Lumbee, “I sure do hope it happens for them... I think they’re deserving of it, just like we were.”

The Eastern Band of Cherokee also raise concern that recognizing the Lumbee will further divide limited federal resources. The Lumbee and Little Shell argue adding another large tribe to the list will allow help Native Americans negotiate for a bigger pot.

The Lumbee should know whether Congress will recognize them in the next week or so. If the answer is no, they’ll begin lobbying lawmakers again next year.

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