By Sarah Nagem
The Lumbee Native American tribe’s quest for full federal recognition has been denied by Congress for 135 years, disappointing tribal members but not dampening their efforts to try again.
Finally, tribal chairman John Lowery says, this could be the year.
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Lowery told the Border Belt Independent on Wednesday that chances are “very high” that both the House and Senate will vote in favor of full recognition for the 60,000-member tribe based in southeastern North Carolina.
Congress voted in 1956 to grant the tribe partial recognition, 71 years after North Carolina recognized the Lumbees. But full federal recognition would bring millions of dollars to the tribe for education, health care and more.
In recent years, starting in 2020, the measure has passed the House but stalled in the Senate.
So what’s different this time?
The name, for starters, Lowery said. In previous years, the legislation was called the Lumbee Recognition Act. This year it’s called the Lumbee Fairness Act.
“It better reflects our true position,” Lowery said. “We want people to realize and to be reminded of 1956 and the fact that Congress has already passed a law recognizing us as a tribe. We’re not asking for recognition (now). We’re asking for the benefits and the services that come along with that.”
A shift in politics and a rise in political influence could also be factors. Lowery was in Raleigh on Wednesday for the inaugural Lumbee Day at the General Assembly, where the state House was expected to pass a resolution in support of the federal legislation.
The tribe showed off its culture through song and dance, and vendors were on hand with their wares.
Lowery’s brother was elected in November to represent most of Robeson County, home to the Lumbee headquarters, in the state House. Voters flipped the seat, which was held for years by Democrat and Lumbee tribe member Charles Graham, to the GOP when they picked Jarrod Lowery. (Graham lost his bid for Congress last fall.)
That election marked a larger departure from the Democratic party, which used to count on Robeson County voters for support. President Barack Obama won more than 56% of the county’s vote in 2008. In 2016, President Donald Trump won more than 50%, and four years later he won 59%.
The Republican National Committee opened an office in Robeson County in early 2022 in an effort to win Native American voters and increase the GOP’s momentum ahead of the midterm elections.
The U.S. House is now narrowly controlled by Republicans, while Democrats control the Senate.
When Thom Tillis and Ted Budd, North Carolina’s two Republican U.S. senators, introduced the Lumbee Fairness Act in February, Tillis said in a statement that the legislation would “grant long-overdue federal benefits.”
“More than six decades ago, Congress made a promise to recognize the Lumbee Tribe, but then failed to keep it,” Tillis said, pledging to work with Democrats and Republicans to pass legislation. He noted that Trump and President Joe Biden have voiced their support.
Congressman David Rouzer, a Wilmington Republican whose newly drawn district includes Robeson County, brought John Lowery as his guest to Biden’s State of the Union Address in February.
“I’m proud to champion the Lumbee Fairness Act in the 118th Congress and will continue working to help the Tribe receive the federal protections they are due, including access to the same resources as every other federally recognized tribe,” Rouzer said in a statement.
At Lumbee Day in Raleigh on Wednesday, several state lawmakers spoke, including state Senate leader Phil Berger, a Republican, and Dan Blue, a Democrat who represents Wake County but has deep ties to Robeson County.
Both said now is the time for Congress to act.
“While we don’t have a say in this,” Berger said, “I can just say it’s past time for the Lumbees to get federal recognition. And if there’s something we can do to help with that, we’re more than happy to participate.”
Opponents to full federal recognition of the Lumbees have included the Eastern Band of Cherokee in western North Carolina and the Tuscarora, many of whom live in Robeson County.
But John Lowery said the Lumbees now have more than 50 letters of support from Native American tribes across the country.
“We have more support within Indian Country than we’ve ever had before,” he said. “We hear from a lot of tribes that they’re tired of us not having the recognition that we deserve.”