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Cherokee chief testifies against Lumbee recognition

Principal Chief Richard Sneed addresses the House Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples. Subcommittee chambers image Principal Chief Richard Sneed addresses the House Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples. Subcommittee chambers image

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is the only federally recognized Native American tribe in North Carolina, but that could change if a bill currently making its way through Congress meets success. The Lumbee Recognition Act, also known as H.R. 1964, would extend federal recognition to the 55,000-member Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, ending a 131-year effort to obtain it. 

EBCI Principal Chief Richard Sneed and Lumbee Chairman Harvey Godwin Jr. both testified in a Dec. 4 hearing on the bill, held before the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples of the United States, which exists under the Natural Resources Committee. While Godwin spoke in hearty support of the bill, terming it a way to correct the “historical injustice” caused by withholding recognition, Sneed was unequivocal in his opposition. 

“We are Cherokee not because we woke up one day and decided to be,” Sneed said. “We are Cherokee because we always have been, from time immemorial. As the elected leader of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, I represent a nation of citizens who are the direct descendents of those who survived one of the most calculated genocides in the history of mankind, the Trail of Tears. When a group of people falsely claim our identity, whether it’s to gain fame, financial gain or federal recognition, it is our duty and responsibility to defend the identity our grandmothers and grandfathers.”

 

The Lumbee case

The Lumbee have been a state-recognized Indian tribe since 1885, but despite repeated efforts they have failed to attain full federal recognition. A search of Congress’s website turns up no fewer than 42 bills and resolutions supporting federal recognition for the Lumbee, the first of which was filed in 1974. Other such bills were filed prior to that date, but the site’s archives extend only to 1973. Nine of the 42 pieces of legislation were passed or agreed to in the House of Representatives, but the Senate did not approve any of them. 

In 1956, Congress passed a rather confusing piece of legislation that stated the Native Americans in Robeson and adjoining counties “claiming joint descent from remnants of early American colonists and certain tribes of Indians” shall be known as the Lumbee Indians of North Carolina but that “nothing in this Act shall make such Indians eligible for any services performed by the United States for Indians because of their status as Indians, and none of the statutes of the United States, which affect Indians because of their status as Indians shall be applicable to the Lumbee Indians.” 

The result for the Lumbees has been a “half-in, half-out” situation that’s unsustainable and unfair, said Godwin. 

“When Congress approves the Lumbee Recognition Act of 2019, it will finally place relations between this tribe and the United States on a firm and fair footing,” said Frederick Hoxie, professor emeritus at the University of Illinois, who testified as a historian with 40 years of experience in teaching and writing about Indian policies. “That’s admirable and important and long overdue, but that’s only part of the story. By approving H.R. 1964 Congress will also be fulfilling once again its unique responsibility as the architect of the modern legal edifice that reconciles native tribes and American democracy.”

According to the tribe’s website, the Lumbee reside primarily in Robeson, Hoke, Cumberland and Scotland counties and trace their heritage to “various Siouan, Algonquian and Iroquoian-speaking tribes.” They take their name from the Lumbee River in Robeson County, and Pembroke is the tribe’s economic, cultural and political center. 

In his testimony, Godwin said the tribe’s large membership — and the associated expense of extending federal benefits — has been the primary reason for past denials of requests for federal recognition. With nearly 60,000 members, the Lumbee would become the largest tribe east of the Mississippi River and the ninth largest nationwide if extended federal recognition. 

“This is a cohesive, coherent culture that is shared by this Lumbee Tribe, and the denial of recognition for this time is an unconscionable injury to the dignity of the Lumbee,” said Rep. Dan Bishop, R-Charlotte, whose district includes Robeson County. “Whatever difficulties exist, the Congress must act with integrity in this matter, and correcting injustice does not allow for difficulties, practical burdens to be balanced on the backs of the Lumbee Tribe.”

 

Reaction from the committee

Most comments offered by representatives present for the hearing pointed to support for the bill. Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Arizona, outlined the many reasons why federal recognition is vital to any tribe’s ability to exercise its sovereignty, concluding that it is “unconscionable to deny a tribe its right to sovereignty based upon its size or cost.”

During the question-and-answer period of the hearing, Committee Chairman Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Arizona, took the first part of his time to outline rebuttals to criticisms the bill had received. 

“This provides a validation 135 years later that should have been done a long time ago,” he concluded. 

Meanwhile, Rep. Paul Cook, R-California, expressed concern about the division this issue has caused between the Lumbee and the Eastern Band, criticizing the Department of the Interior for its role in that outcome. 

“It’s troubling to me because here we go again, having tribe against tribe, and I’m a little bit upset — I’m more than a little bit upset — at the Department of Interior, the BIA for not adjudicating this issue,” he said. 

Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-Wilson, who introduced the bill, had no such reservations.

 

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Representatives from both the Lumbee and Cherokee tribes attended the hearing. Subcommittee chambers image

 

“I really have hope this time that we’re going to get this legislation to the finish line,” he said. “This is a good day not just for the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, but it’s a good day for what I’m going to call basic fairness.”

In the Senate, N.C. Sen. Richard Burr has introduced a companion bill to H.R. 1964, with Sen. Thom Tillis as the sole co-sponsor. S.1368 was introduced May 8, 2019, but no action has been taken since. 

“The Lumbees are the largest American Indian tribe in the Eastern United States, and they’ve sought federal recognition since the 1880s,” Burr wrote in a July 2019 editorial piece published in The Charlotte Observer. “The federal government finally acknowledged them as a tribe in 1950s, but denied them the full benefits and services that other tribes receive.”

In his comments to the subcommittee, Butterfield said he was hopeful for a positive outcome this time around. For the bill to move forward, the subcommittee would have to hold a markup session, in which it could make changes to the bill and vote on a version to recommend for approval by the full House. 

The House bill has six co-sponsors, including North Carolina Democrats David Price and Alma Adams, North Carolina Republicans Richard Hudson and Dan Bishop, Alaska Republican Don Young and Minnesota Democrat Betty McCollum. Rep. Mark Meadows, R-Asheville, did not return a request for comment.

 

Opposition from Cherokee 

The Department of the Interior oversees an administrative pathway for federal recognition of Indian tribes, but Congress can also bestow recognition through legislation. 

According to proponents of the bill, Congress was responsible for the Lumbee Act of 1956, so it’s up to Congress to clear up the uncertainty the bill left behind. Furthermore, proponents said, administrative recognition can be a decades-long process and is therefore vulnerable to influence from changing administrations. 

But in his testimony, Sneed objected to the congressional path, stating that the administrative process is designed to “ensure the integrity of those groups that claim native identity.” Currently there are nine Southeastern groups that claim to be Cherokee but are not federally recognized, he said. The administrative process ensures that only groups with valid claims receive recognition.

“It should not be left to tribes to have to come before Congress and before committees to defend who we are as a people when there is a process in place with experts, genealogists and so forth who can vet out all of that information,” said Sneed. 

It’s important to verify such claims not only to protect cultural integrity, but also to protect funding for existing tribes, Sneed said. The Bureau of Indian Affairs and Indian Health Services are chronically underfunded, with their budgets increasing by only about 3 percent annually and IHS having never been fully funded. Full IHS funding would amount to approximately $32 billion, he said, but in the past fiscal year the agency received only about $6 billion. There’s no guarantee that recognizing the Lumbee would result in the additional appropriations needed to fund the associated benefits. 

“Congress should be absolutely certain that the Lumbee group meets the objective criteria at Interior before it enacts a bill that could cost up to $1 billion of taxpayer funds and significantly decrease the existing funds tribes receive,” he said. 

Butterfield questioned this line of reasoning during an exchange in the last minutes of the hearing. 

“Will federal recognition in any way have a financial impact on your tribe?” he asked Sneed. 

“Federal recognition of a group this size would have a financial impact on every federally recognized tribe,” Sneed replied. 

“So it’s not only about defending the identities of your ancestors, and while I recognize and stipulate that that’s important, there’s also a financial consideration in your opposition,” Butterfield said. 

“There are tribes who live in abject poverty and don’t have the resources to come before these subcommittees and be a voice,” Sneed responded. “We are here to be their advocate as well.”

While the EBCI “supports the Lumbees having a fair chance at recognition” through the administrative process, said Sneed, “the historical record raises very serious questions about the tribal and individual identity of the Lumbees.”

Most modern-day Lumbees, said Sneed, “cannot demonstrate any native ancestry at all,” and the bill as written would prevent the Secretary of the Interior from adequately reviewing that ancestry. If the bill were to become law, the government would consider anyone currently on the Lumbee tribal roll on the date of enactment a member, and the secretary’s verification of membership would be limited to confirming compliance with membership criteria outlined in the tribe’s constitution.

Sneed testified that the Lumbee have been wishy-washy on the source of their native ancestry, stating that over the years they have claimed identity as descendents of Cherokee, Tuscaroran, Cheraw and Sioux-speaking tribes. 

“The Lumbees have cloaked themselves in these tribal identities in a century-long quest for federal recognition as an Indian tribe,” he said. “Even since the last Congress, the Lumbees have changed again from identifying themselves as the Lumbee Tribe of Cheraw Indians to the more general Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina. Congress should not reward this identity shopping with federal recognition and should not sanction the appropriation of Cherokee history, culture and sovereignty.”

Grijalva, however, dismissed that criticism during his comments. 

“We also heard that Lumbee cannot be a real tribe because they’re descended from multiple tribal groups, and that has nothing to do with the ability to be federally recognized,” he said. “The Indian Reorganization Act allows any group of Native Americans who are living together, regardless of historical tribal affiliation, to adopt a Constitution, organize a tribal government, and thereby become federally recognized. Again, that is not a reason not to.”

No further action has been taken on the bill since Dec. 4. More information, including bill text and any future updates, is available at www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/house-bill/1964.

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