Full federal recognition for Lumbees left out of Senate spending bill. What’s next?

By Sarah Nagem


The Lumbee tribe’s years-long fight for full recognition has hit yet another roadblock. The Senate failed to include the measure in its recent spending bill.

John Lowery, chairman of the Lumbee tribe, which is based in Robeson County and has about 60,000 members, said he was disappointed but hopeful. 

“Congress has to fix what they did wrong in 1956,” Lowery said, referring to the act that granted the tribe only partial recognition from the federal government. With full recognition, the Lumbees would receive millions of dollars to spend on education, health care and other services. 

Opposition from other Native American tribes, including the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in western North Carolina, was likely a factor in leaving the Lumbees’ request out of the Senate’s omnibus spending bill. 

Leaders of nine tribes signed a letter last month to Sen. Brian Schatz, a Hawaii Democrat who serves as chairman of the Senate’s Indian Affairs Committee, and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican who serves as vice chair. 

In the letter, the tribal leaders asked that consideration of federal recognition be deferred to the Department of the Interior’s Office for Federal Recognition.   

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The office “is well equipped to investigate whether a group is an historical tribe” in which its members “can generate genealogical descent from that tribe,” the letter says. 

The Lumbees are one of four Native American groups that have bills in Congress asking for federal recognition, according to the letter.  

“If the Congress enacts any of these bills, hundreds of other groups claiming to be tribes also will seek federal legislation to circumvent the OFA process,” the letter says. 

The House of Representatives voted 357-59 in November to pass the Lumbee recognition bill, which was sponsored by Rep. G.K. Butterfield, a North Carolina Democrat. 

“The Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina has waited far too long to receive the full federal recognition it has long deserved,” Butterfield said in a statement after the House vote. “Now is the time for this Congress to stand on the right side of history by fully recognizing the Lumbee.” 

The Senate version of the bill has support from North Carolina Sens. Richard Burr and Thom Tillis, both Republicans. 

In a recent message to Lumbee tribal members, Lowery said was in Washington, D.C., in early March to talk to members of Congress. 

“Our hope was to have the Lumbee Bill placed onto the latest Omnibus Bill,” Lowery said in his message to the tribe. “We were unsuccessful at this attempt, but the support we found on Capitol Hill continues to grow as we inch closer to our goal of receiving full Federal Recognition. 

“The fact our ancestors began this journey in 1888, to receive education services for our youth, only fuels my fire to push forward and to keep an eye open toward other avenues of action as well,” he said. 

John Lowery, the new chairman of the Lumbee tribe, gives a speech during his swearing-in ceremony on Jan. 6, 2022.
Screenshot from YouTube

This latest setback for full federal recognition is a repeat of late 2020, when the House passed the measure but the Senate did not include it in its omnibus spending bill. 

Richard Sneed, principal chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, has been one of the biggest opponents of the Lumbees’ push for full recognition. He and some others say the Lumbees cannot accurately trace their heritage to a single tribe. 

Historians say the Lumbees are descendents of several tribes who went on to mingle with English settlers. The tribe’s service area today is made up of Cumberland, Hoke, Robeson and Scotland counties. 

But insiders say opposition to full federal recognition for the Lumbees is more about money than heritage.

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, the only North Carolina tribe with full federal recognition, operates casinos in the western part of the state. 

The tribe has spoken out against the federal government’s decision to allow the South Carolina-based Catawba tribe to open a casino near Charlotte. 

“This flawed decision is a plain example of ‘reservation shopping,’ the practice of casino developers pairing a willing Indian tribe with a city or county open to a casino and seeking to have the federal government create a new reservation outside the willing tribe’s aboriginal territory,” the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians says on the tribe’s website. 

There’s no guarantee the Lumbee tribe would open a casino in Robeson or surrounding counties, although some say the proximity to Interstate 95 would help attract tourists looking to gamble. 

A casino would require a majority vote from the tribe’s members, many of whom favor socially conservative policies. 

Lowery said opposition from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians has played a role in Congress’ failure to give Lumbees full recognition. But he’s not giving up. 

“Tribal issues are not a high priority of Congress overall,” he said. “We’re continuing to push forward.”

Follow Sarah Nagem on Twitter: @sarah_nagem