By Julian Brave NoiseCat
For The Assembly
This essay was originally published by The Assembly.
Arlinda Locklear rested the crook of her long arm on the back of one of the many folding chairs scattered about the rows of tables and told it like it was. A couple dozen other Locklears gathered round in the garage behind her late brother Locke Locklear’s farm, tucked between the cornfields, ditches, and woods of Locklear Road.
Everyone on this country bend is a Locklear. Arlinda’s grandfather, Gus, lived down the way and divided his land between his six sons and five daughters. Like other members of North Carolina’s Lumbee Tribe, they kept it in the family, reinvesting occasional profits to buy up adjacent parcels.
The Locklears get together for a big meal whenever Arlinda comes home from Washington, D.C.—usually around Lumbee Homecoming week each July—in Pembroke. These are lively gatherings, where stories of Lumbee life are retold over sweet tea, fatback, and collards.
But the gathering in July 2021 took a more somber tone. Arlinda’s brother, Locke, the traditional host of these family feasts, had died of COVID-19 in May 2020. Then her youngest brother, Gary Wayne, died of it too, about a month after Locke. This was just the second gathering since their passing.
Arlinda has spent her legal career fighting for the Lumbee and other tribes in Washington. As a law student, she defeated John Kerry to win the American College of Trial Lawyers’ National Moot Court Competition. In 1984, she became the first Native American woman to argue a case in front of the Supreme Court, where she successfully proved that Congress had never extinguished the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe’s historic reservation boundaries and, consequently, its jurisdiction over certain criminal matters.
The precedent set by Arlinda’s case was applied in the Supreme Court’s historic 2020 ruling in McGirt v. Oklahoma, which found that the Muscogee Creek reservation had never been legally diminished, which means their criminal jurisdiction over their historic lands prevails. The precedent McGirt set was, in turn, applied to four other tribes relocated to Oklahoma: the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Seminole, and Quapaw, whose lands collectively comprise about half the state.
Arlinda, who has honorary doctorates from three universities and is profiled in numerous editions of various “Who’s Who” directories, is what some might call a matriarch and others might call a badass. She’s got stories.
When I took a seat, my plate loaded down with food, Arlinda was in the middle of one.
In 1983, “Adolph Dial, the Lumbee chairman, was testifying to the House of Representatives at a hearing for our federal recognition,” she recalled. “And a member of the committee said, ‘My goodness, your numbers have boomed over the last 50 years. There’s a lot of you!’” (In the 1950s there were some 20,000 Lumbee. By the new millennium there were over 50,000.)
Arlinda continued: “Not missing a beat, the chairman responded, ‘Congressman, the bed of misery is a fertile one.’”
“If you took all the Lowerys, Locklears, and Oxendines, Robeson County would come up two inches,” quipped Chad Pierce, Arlinda’s nephew by marriage.
The Lumbee often say their families are so big because their parents and grandparents were raising farmhands. Some, like Arlinda, sometimes follow this line with a self-deprecating explanation: “My last surviving grandfather used to say, ‘Send your lazy ones to college.’”
Arlinda has been serving her people one way or another pretty much her whole life. She remembers the segregated movie theaters of Robeson County, when Black people and Indians, sometimes called “Cro”—an epithet derived from “Croatoan,” one of the tribes from whom the Lumbee claim descent—were relegated to the balcony. She recalls when one of her uncles got caught up in the criminal justice system. Her elderly maternal grandfather went in to bail him out, but was dismissed with a sneer. Feeling defeated, the old man sat out on the back porch, crying all night. That’s when Arlinda decided she wanted to use the law to fight injustice.
The Lumbee are the most populous tribe east of the Mississippi and a force in North Carolina politics—despite the fact that they do not number among the 574 tribes currently recognized by the federal government, as of this year. Although the state of North Carolina recognized the Lumbee in 1885 and Congress passed an act bearing their name in 1956, the Lumbee do not have the same legal rights and status as other American Indians under federal law.
There are some 400 tribes that the federal government does not recognize. The Lumbee are by far the largest.
Without federal recognition, they have been denied access to billions of dollars set aside for essential social services for American Indians and Alaska Natives. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the federal government would have needed to invest $786 million to support the tribe from 2010 to 2014 if they had been recognized.
When Arlinda was a young lawyer, she believed she had been “put on this earth” to ensure that her people finally received federal recognition. Now in her 70s, she’s had to come to terms with the reality that she might not see it through.
I met Arlinda when I came to Robeson County for the 2021 Lumbee Homecoming celebration, the first since the coronavirus pandemic. I’d met a few Lumbee on the powwow trail over the years, but knew little about them other than that they sure could dance and sing.
In the summer months, the best dancers travel the North American powwow circuit, winning envelopes stuffed with prize money they can reinvest in gas to carry them down the road to the next powwow. Nine times out of 10, when Native people are asked to perform our identity—like on Indigenous Peoples Day or during Native American Heritage Month, or at any event that calls on us to play our part in a rendition of this continent’s Indigenous culture or past—this is what we do. We powwow.
For most Indians, powwow was not something we did historically. But since the late 1800s, it has spread across the continent, slowly at first, and then, seemingly, all at once with the relocation of Native Americans to cities and the subsequent resurgence of Native culture and pride. By the time powwow reached North Carolina in the 1960s, it had become a sort of Indigenous lingua franca of moving bodies. Today, powwow remains one of the few contexts in which Indians see and recognize each other as one people across tribal differences.
Because I used to be in that business—what Sherman Alexie called “the business of fancy dancing”—I notice when someone is really dancing. “Dance hard!” is a common refrain on the powwow circuit because dancers don’t always dance hard. There is half-assed dancing, where they’re kind of going through the motions but not really sweating or making much effort. This is how most dance in the grand entry that begins every powwow, or during the intertribal social dances or exhibitions for outsiders. There’s also what I might call three-quarter dancing, where you’re making some effort but saving your best moves for contest time when you’ll really need to stand out for the judges.
During my years on the circuit, I always had the impression that there was an unwritten rule against dancing your hardest in exhibitions, especially for non-Natives. That it was important to save your best for contest time when the only onlookers who matter are Indigenous. That if you danced hard for outsiders it suggested you had something to prove about your dancing or maybe even about your Indian-ness. And that there was something undignified about an Indian with something to prove. Because on a continent where every inch is evidence of our near-total extermination, why should we have to prove anything?
But on the July night I caught the performance of The Lost Colony, a play performed in Manteo each summer that focuses on the fate of the first English colonists, the Lumbee weren’t half-assing it. In the business of fancy dancing, they are some of the best. And even though they were dancing for a bunch of polo-chested beachgoers gathered to watch a drama celebrating yet another founding myth that, from this Native writer’s perspective, deserves half an Indian ass (or at best three quarters of one), the Lumbee were giving it the full Indian.
A men’s fancy dancer, his footwork remixing the fierce athleticism of a war dance with the showboating acrobatics of a B-boy, bounced and spun. A women’s fancy dancer floated across the stage, toes barely caressing the ground, arms and shoulders draped in a shawl that twisted, turned, and quivered like a butterfly in the wind. A gray-eyed 18-year-old smoke dancer named Nakya Leviner jumped, stomped, and glided, his moccasins kicking up the beach sand as far as the first row. At the end of his solo, he let loose a bone-chilling war cry—Ee-HAAA!—that made some in the boat-shoe, straw-hat, and pastel-clad audience gasp.
“Jesus!” said the guy seated behind me. “What is this guy doing?”
Then, a hoop dancer laid a dozen circular hoops, each a bit smaller than the kind used on schoolyard playgrounds, before himself. He picked them up, sometimes with the mere flick of a toe, and danced with them one by one. He spun them on his arms and legs, leaping through them like jump ropes and manipulating them to mimic all sorts of animals, shapes, and spirits—a snake, an eagle, and finally a delicate sphere that symbolized the whole world. He held the orb of hoops aloft like some sort of powwow Air Jordan “Jumpman” logo to many oohs and aahs.
At the final beat of the drum, the dancers stopped in unison with their fists clenched in the air like Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics. The tourists clapped and the Lumbee exited.
Backstage, behind the mock stockade, the troupe took off their moccasins to shake out the sand pooling between their toes. Each night, the tribal performers held an informal contest to see who gathered the most sand in their Indian shoes. Leviner, the smoke dancer who also played the role of Manteo, a Croatoan diplomat and real-life historical figure who was the only Native American ever conferred the title of English Lord, usually won.
Because in the strange racial politics of the United States, the Lumbee have to dance hard. The tribe has been seeking federal recognition through various means since 1888, when they first petitioned the federal government for assistance with their schools.
While the 1956 Lumbee Act acknowledged them as an Indian tribe, it denied them the full benefits enjoyed by other Native nations. Since the 1970s, the Lumbee have pursued recognition through the Interior Department’s Office of Federal Acknowledgment, as well as through new legislation.
The preference has always been for the latter, Arlinda explained. To receive recognition through the Office of Federal Acknowledgment, the Lumbee need to prove the continuity of their community back to the year 1900. (Prior to a 2015 ruling, tribes were required to trace themselves back to the founding of the country.) The office has a rigorous definition of continuous habitation. Tribes petitioning for recognition must provide a series of historical documents no greater than 20 years apart showing that they lived in one place and that they had a specific tribal background.
The Lumbee have both ample evidence of their continuous habitation and documents stating they’re Indian. But because they are a mixed tribe descended from many different Indigenous and non-Indigenous lineages, the Indians of Robeson County were rarely described as hailing from one particular tribe and were sometimes erroneously identified as Cherokee. The nations from which they came were scattered to the wind, and so they became just plain old “Indians.”
“The legal system is built on the presumption that we have gone away,” Arlinda said. “That’s just ass-backwards.”
The Lumbee’s best shots at federal recognition have always taken the form of amendments and riders to other bills, but Lumbee recognition has been introduced in every Congress since 1988—amounting to 29 bills in 33 years. The amendment reliably passes through the House of Representatives when Democrats control the lower chamber. The problem, as with almost all legislation, is the Senate.
Arlinda vividly remembers when, in 1992, the Lumbee came just two votes shy of the 60 required to reach cloture and end debate in the upper chamber.
By Arlinda’s reckoning, they had 61 votes, including the support of Republican Sen. John McCain. Against his own advisers, McCain decided he’d vote to end debate on the Lumbee amendment. The move would give the tribe its floor vote while simultaneously giving McCain cover to tell supporters, colleagues, and other tribes who opposed Lumbee recognition that he had not technically voted for the Lumbee bill.
But as it happened, the day the bill made it to the Senate floor—with a crowd of Lumbee bused in from North Carolina watching from the Senate gallery—three Democrats running for president were absent. As the votes were counted and it became clear the Lumbee would not get the 60 they needed, tribal members filed out of the Senate gallery, chins sunk into chests and cheeks wet with tears.
McCain walked past but—realizing who they were—doubled back. “I know it’s a sad day for you,” Arlinda recalls the late Arizona senator telling her. “But stay with it. One day, you’ll get it.”
Arlinda’s admiration for McCain was evident as she recounted the story. Her belief in his message, however, emitted doubt.
Despite their prominence in local politics, little seems to be known about the Lumbee’s diverse and mysterious origins. Tribal members trace their ancestry to Algonquin, Siouan, and Iroquoian-speaking nations indigenous to what are now the Carolinas, who were scattered and nearly exterminated by settler colonialism.
According to Malinda Maynor Lowery, a historian at Emory University, member of the Lumbee tribe, and the author of The Lumbee Indians: An American Struggle, refugees of decimated peoples huddled together in the impenetrable Robeson County swamp, where, over time, they intermarried with English- and Gaelic-speaking settlers, as well as Black slaves and freedmen.
Intriguingly, most Lumbee and some historians like Lowery say the tribe’s many and diverse forebears likely include the mythic “Lost Colonists” of Roanoke. These were the English settlers, led by Governor John White, who established the first beachhead of the British Empire in North America in 1587—a generation before Jamestown and even longer before Plymouth—before inexplicably disappearing.
Virginia Dare, the first “white” child born in North America, was born at Roanoke. She was named after the fertile colony claimed on behalf of England’s Queen Elizabeth I, which was, in turn, called “Virginia” because the English Queen was unwed. (Virgin-ia; get it?) Roanoke, confusingly, is not in present-day Virginia. It’s in North Carolina. Moreover, despite the popular racial mythology surrounding her birth, Virginia Dare was not actually the first “white” baby born in what is now the United States. (It was a Spanish guy born in St. Augustine, Florida, named Martín de Argüelles.)
Nonetheless, as the supposed first “white” child delivered in what is now the United States, Dare has featured prominently in national and racial mythology across the centuries. As has her supposedly “lost” Roanoke Colony. Which, like Dare’s birth, is more myth than history. What actually happened, according to historians, is that John White, Dare’s grandfather and the Roanoke’s governor, returned to England to resupply in 1587 and was delayed for three years by the Spanish Armada. When he came back to North America, White couldn’t find his colony, though he, and everybody else at the time, seemed to have a good idea of where they went: north and inland with the Natives. Archaeologists have, more recently, also found evidence suggesting that’s what happened.
The Lumbee identified themselves as a “remnant” of the lost colony in their first petition for federal recognition as an Indian tribe in 1915. They say Virginia Dare’s grave lies in their swamps.
But few are willing to see Native people as the living descendants of Roanoke, to believe what a growing number of archaeologists and historians agree is the most likely fate of the colony: that it joined its Algonquin neighbors and assimilated into Indigenous society and culture.
In the American conceptualization of race and past, assimilation is unidirectional with Indians becoming less and less Indian over time. In the United States, “Indian blood” is regulated by the federal government and in some cases by tribes who measure the purity of our race in fractions down to the 32nd.
The Lumbee have long broken this mold. They are a mixed community descended in part from non-Indigenous peoples who chose to reverse-assimilate, self-determine, and self-identify as Indian across centuries. The same racial pathology that says the first white colonists could not, and would not, have assimilated into Indigenous society prevents the Lumbee from being recognized as Native.
And when it’s impossible to imagine non-Indians joining and becoming Indians, it’s also impossible to recognize the Lumbee as Indigenous.
On the morning of last year’s Lumbee Homecoming parade, I situated myself on the sidewalk across from the Pembroke Pawn Shop on West 3rd Street to take in the procession of tribal pride.
Tribal princesses crowned with beaded tiaras perched on the rear windows of candy-painted convertibles. First responders showered sweets on expectant children from bedazzled floats. Lumbee kids rescued Jolly Ranchers and Tootsie Rolls from the crunch of sneakers, tires, and asphalt. UNC Pembroke students chanted “I say ‘Red,’ you say ‘Nation!’” from a trailer coated in streamers. Powwow singers and dancers beat hand drums and carried staffs strung with black and white golden eagle feathers.
There were also cops, tribal security, and local politicians: District Court Judge Brooke Locklear Clark, Lumbee State Rep. and Democratic congressional candidate Charles Graham, Republican U.S. Rep. Dan Bishop, Trump-endorsed Senate candidate and current U.S. Rep. Ted Budd, the Honorable So and So from Such and Such—a surprising number of them conservative.
Ten years ago, you’d be hard-pressed to find a Republican in this parade. In 2012, Barack Obama won 58 percent of the vote in Robeson County, where the Lumbee comprise 40 percent of the electorate. But then, after over a century of Democratic loyalty, the Lumbee switched sides. In 2016, the tribe helped Donald Trump and the Republicans win North Carolina.
The margin widened in 2020, after Trump held a rally in Robeson County and promised to fight for Lumbee recognition if he won the White House. Biden made the same commitment in his platform, as every recent Democratic presidential candidate has, but never came to the county. Marching off with a 59 to 40 margin in Robeson, Trump and the Republicans carried North Carolina, its electoral college votes, and a Senate seat.
After a fire engine lumbered past, siren wailing, I spotted John Lowery, who was at the time the 40-year-old frontrunner for tribal chairman. He pulled me into the parade and I attempted to interview him as he trotted along, ducking into the crowd every few steps to dole out daps, hugs, and yard signs, occasionally at the advice of one of his campaign volunteers (cousins, mostly) but more often through his own nose for the crowd.
“We love you, John!” hollered one supporter.
“Hey, my chairman!” called another.
He spotted one guy with a “John Lowery for Tribal Chairman” shirt and pointed to him. “I like your shirt!”
When Lumbee meet each other for the first time, they often ask, “Who’s your people?” and, “Where do you church?” Their politics are similarly organized around families and congregations. And with just a fraction of Lumbees participating—there are only about 5,000 ballots cast each cycle, give or take—all politics are retail.
Lowery is a direct descendant of Henry Berry Lowry, a gunslinger fit for a Tarantino flick who led a multiracial guerilla campaign against the white elite during the Civil War and Reconstruction. He is the Lumbee tribe’s greatest hero. With his charisma, faith, and lineage, John Lowery has what it takes to succeed in the hyperlocal world of tribal politics. Even over the drone of the fire engine, the support for his campaign was evident.
Between interactions with voters, Lowery told me about his priorities: getting first responders naloxone so they can save those at risk in the opioid epidemic; reintegrating formerly incarcerated Lumbee into the community and labor force; creating jobs; lobbying the Department of Housing and Urban Development for more support; and, of course, winning federal recognition.
John Lowery first served as a tribal councilor from 2006 to 2008. At the time, he was the youngest-ever Lumbee elected representative. Then he went to Washington, where he worked with the National Congress of American Indians and was later hired at the U.S. Department of Agriculture by Janie Hipp, a member of the Chickasaw Nation and the first Native American general counsel in the agency’s history.
Around the same time, Lowery’s brother Jarrod, a former Marine, also entered politics. Jarrod rose quickly in the GOP. Politico Magazine credited him with playing a leading role in shifting Lumbee voting preferences back to the Republicans for the first time since the days of his ancestor, Henry Berry.
John Lowery explained that in his view, since the 1956 Lumbee Act, Congress has “screwed” the tribe, and that he wants to explore other pathways to federal recognition—a lawsuit, for example, or maybe another unnamed route through the executive branch. I sensed that Lowery was fed up with the decades-long Congressional stalemate on federal recognition and wanted to be more assertive in pursuing legal and political vindication of Lumbee identity.
“That’s what we want,” the Tribal Chairman candidate said, emphatically. “We want to know that our voice is being heard.”
My questions carried us to the end of the parade, where a truck and trailer loaded down with relatives and volunteers were waiting to shuttle John, Jarrod, and a few other Lowerys to a parking lot on the opposite side of Pembroke. Notebook and recorder in one hand, pen in the other, I looped my elbow around a railing to keep from flying off the back of the trailer and kept volleying questions at the candidate and his people.
“John understands politics,” said Jarrod, whose white, mirror-lensed sunglasses made him hard to read, like a poker player. “But our status shouldn’t be political. It should be about justice. … No one side or person can make this happen.”
Despite his rising star on the right side of the aisle, Jarrod seemed just as fed up with Washington as any other Lumbee. Aside from helping his brother get elected, Jarrod claimed he was exiting the political game in favor of the private sector. “I’m a Lumbee before I’m a Republican,” he said.
When we pulled into the parking lot, Ted Budd, the Trump-backed Senate candidate running to “override the woke left,” was there. He was hanging around a big, white Ford F-350 plated with campaign signage, glad-handing local voters and influence peddlers, mostly all Lumbee. His crew, which included North Carolina State Senator Danny Britt, the first Republican to win Robeson County’s seat since the Civil War, seemed to have agreed on a team uniform: blue jeans, tucked-in shirts, and ball caps.
Before heading off, Lowery shook Budd’s hand. Or maybe it was the other way around? I couldn’t really tell who was the lead and who was the follow in this courtship dance.
While the Senate is the formal obstacle to Lumbee recognition, the tribe’s real opponents are other tribes. For years, the Eastern Band of Cherokee in western North Carolina has organized Native nations and lobbied senators to stymie the Lumbee’s efforts. The Cherokee have clear economic reasons to oppose the Robeson County Indians’ recognition.
The hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding that would go to the Lumbee, according to the Congressional Budget Office, would, without additional appropriations, come out of the pot of federal funding shared by all tribes. Moreover, the Eastern Band operates two lucrative North Carolina casinos.
In 2021, those casinos paid every Eastern Band of Cherokee tribal member $8,840. Were the Lumbee to get their own recognition and stand up their own casinos, those checks could be a lot slimmer.
But those are not the Eastern Band’s public talking points. In the press and before Congress, the Cherokee say that the Lumbee used to claim to be Cherokee.
They’re not wrong. The Lumbee sought recognition under the name “Cherokee Indians of Robeson County” periodically from 1915, up until the Indians of Robeson County held a referendum in 1952 to adopt “Lumbee,” named after the river that runs through their swampy homelands.
Despite the Lumbee’s disavowal of any Cherokee blood, the Eastern Band still points to the North Carolina tribe’s past mistaken identification as Cherokee as evidence that they are ethnic frauds. “Oftentimes, groups seeking federal acknowledgment claim tribal identities that do not belong to them,” reads a 2022 letter from the Eastern Band’s Principal Chief Richard Sneed and the leaders of other tribes including the Shawnee, Fort Belknap Tribe of Indians, Fort Sill Apache, Mississippi Band of Choctaw, Delaware Tribe of Indians, Delaware Nation, Chickasaw Nation, and United Indian Nations of Oklahoma, Kansas, and Texas.
“Even more often,” the letter continues, “the people claiming to be descendants of known historic tribes cannot demonstrate tribal ancestry, or any Native ancestry at all.” Rather than seeking recognition from Congress, the Eastern Band insists that the Lumbee should go through the rigorous federal acknowledgment process, where, Arlinda says, current regulations all but seal the tribe’s fate.
Over the years, Arlinda and other Lumbee leaders have won support from other tribes, including the leaders of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, the Red Lake Nation in Minnesota, the Narragansett Tribe in Rhode Island, and the Seminole Tribe of Florida.
After she helped win the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe’s Supreme Court case in the 1980s, Arlinda approached their tribal council for help. After considering her request, the Cheyenne River Sioux, like many other Indian nations, passed a resolution in formal opposition to Lumbee recognition.
“It’s almost as if, if you’re not federally recognized, you don’t experience oppression,” said Arlinda.
Two independent archaeological teams recently discovered artifacts that strongly suggest the Roanoke colonists did what the note they left behind said: abandon fort, split into two camps, and live among the Algonquins, possibly the Croatoan.
One group evidently moved 50 miles southeast to Hatteras Island on the Outer Banks. Another relocated about the same distance inland and northwest, likely to a town called Mettaquem by Algonquin speakers. It’s located near present-day Edenton, North Carolina, on the Albemarle Sound.
At the Hatteras site, archaeologists discovered a 10-karat gold signet ring engraved with what appears to be a lion or horse, which they suspect was owned by an English nobleman. They’ve also found a copper eyelet, likely from Elizabethan clothing, parts of a musket, the pit of a peach (a fruit that’s not native to North America), the hilt of a rapier, a lead pencil, and a slate writing tablet with the letter “M” just visible on its corner, among other artifacts.
In 2012, researchers also discovered a miniscule four-point star hidden beneath a patch on one of the maps drawn by Roanoke Colony Governor John White. According to a separate group of archaeologists, it’s the location of the dig on Albemarle Sound. There, amid a sea of Indigenous ceramics, investigators have unearthed shards of English pottery that date to the 16th century. This kind of pottery is not known to have been used as a trade item, according to the researchers, and no examples of 17th century English pottery have been discovered at the site.
This suggests that there was no trade between Natives living on Albemarle Sound and the British, Dutch, French, or Spanish, and that the pottery belonged to someone who lived at the site. Other European artifacts including a metal hook and a copper aglet, a small tube used to secure wool fibers that went out of style in England by the 17th century, have also been found. Though not exactly a smoking gun, these artifacts together lead many experts to conclude that the Roanoke colonists became part of Algonquin.
That is also what many Natives say happened. In his 1709 book, A New Voyage to Carolina, English explorer John Lawson wrote that the Natives on Hatteras Island “tell us that several of their ancestors were white people, and could talk in a book, as we do.” Lawson also said he met a number of Indians with “gray eyes.”
Over a century and a half later, the Lumbee maintained a similar oral history. It was first recorded when Henry Berry Lowry’s father, Jarman, said at a courthouse, in 1865: “We have always been the friends of white men. When the English came to Roanoke, our tribe treated them kindly.”
During my own voyage to North Carolina, I found it curious that many Lumbee also have those gray eyes. They call them “Tuscarora eyes” after one of the Iroquoian-speaking peoples from whom they claim descent. Henry Berry had those striking Tuscarora eyes. Nakya Leviner, the smoke dancer I’d watched impress the crowd at The Lost Colony, has them too.
I stood in the circle gathered around War Paint, the host drum at the Lumbee Homecoming powwow, holding my iPhone high above my head to record their victory song.
Nakya Leviner’s older brother and War Paint’s lead singer, Kaya Littleturtle, struck the drum and started the tune. Littleturtle directed the singers like a conductor—his drumstick setting the rhythm, his finger or mere glance identifying the next man to sing the lead that marks the beginning of each of the four verses (commonly known as “push-ups”) comprising the standard powwow song.
Littleturtle is an accomplished singer. He’s traveled all over North America with Midnite Express, a drum group that’s like the Wu-Tang Clan of powwow in that their unique and beloved sound is now rarely heard because their vocalists have mostly gone their separate ways.
Littleturtle now primarily travels with War Paint. The group has hosted powwows like Leech Lake Indian Days in Minnesota, Suquamish Renewal in Washington state, and, in 2017, the annual 4th of July celebration of the Eastern Band of Cherokee. As I grooved to their Lumbee tune, getting up to join a few intertribal social dances throughout the day, I wondered how a people could be Indian enough to host your tribal celebration but not Indian enough to share your tribal status.
When I asked Littleturtle for his take on the Eastern Band and other tribes’ opposition to Lumbee recognition, he said that, personally, he hadn’t experienced any prejudice. “A lot of that is propaganda from other tribes because of economic concerns,” Littleturtle argued. But he also seemed annoyed by the question.
In Littleturtle’s eyes, the Lumbee have been acknowledged as a Native nation. There’s a whole law with their name on it, after all. His people just don’t enjoy the same benefits afforded to fully federally recognized tribes. And beyond that, he feels there’s also an implication in the asking that the Lumbee may not be Native at all and that outsiders—like the federal government, Congress, and other tribes—get to define who they are.
“We never wanted to be called the Cherokees of Robeson County,” Littleturtle said, sounding exasperated and echoing what other Lumbee experts like Arlinda Locklear and Malinda Maynor Lowery told me about names like “Cherokee” and “Croatoan.” “Those names were put on us by the state government.” Littleturtle emphasized that he’s more interested in culture and what comes from within. That’s why he sings.
From Littleturtle and other Lumbee, I sensed caution and even skepticism toward my presence in a way that I rarely experience as a Native journalist in Indian Country. Most every nation and subject I’ve covered has felt empowered by the visibility of the press. But in Robeson County, where, for decades, outside researchers and writers have voyaged to assess the local Natives’ racial authenticity, visibility often means you’re being sized up.
In 1934, Congress passed the Indian Reorganization Act, which, among other reforms, codified the terms of this racial sizing-up by shifting the pathway to federal recognition from legal arrangements like treaties and legislation to the measurement of an individual’s “Indian blood.”
According to the act, an Indian could now be defined as “a person of one-half or more Indian blood, whether or not affiliated with a recognized tribe, and whether or not they have ever resided on a reservation.” Under the new legislation, the Indians of Robeson County requested assistance from the Office of Indian Affairs, which dispatched three men to North Carolina to assess the applicants’ eligibility. These were Métis novelist D’Arcy McNickle, the chief assistant to Commissioner of Indian Affairs John Collier, attorney E. S. McMahon, and Harvard Peabody Museum anthropologist Carl Seltzer.
McNickle, the only Native among the three, was the first to visit North Carolina and was the most confident of the Robeson County peoples’ claim to Native identity. “That they are Indians cannot be doubted” and that they “keep within themselves an unfailing recognition of their link with the past,” McNickle wrote in a memo to Commissioner Collier.
But under the Indian Reorganization Act, being Indian wasn’t defined by one’s connection to their ancestors, relatives, or culture. Instead, it was defined by racial purity.
To determine whether the Robeson County Indians were truly Indian, Seltzer, the “physical” anthropologist, lined up 206 individuals applying for recognition. As they took turns standing on a platform, the Harvard man inspected their specimen, examining moles, freckles, and body hair. He peered into their mouths as they said ahh to determine the shape of their teeth and bite. (We Indians are supposed to have shovel-shaped pearly whites.) He looked at the color of the skin on their inner arms. He measured their earlobes, noses, torsos, and chests. He took their hair in his hand to classify its form and texture: “straight,” “low-wave,” “curly,” “frizzy,” “wooly,” “coarse,” “fine,” or “medium.” He scratched their breastbone to see if they turned red. (Real red men, according to Seltzer’s science, don’t turn red when scratched.) He took two photographs of each: head-on and profile.
When Seltzer was done, he gave each specimen a racial diagnosis. One was “decidedly un-Indian.” Another had “definite negroidal suggestions.” A third: “an individual of strong Indian and white elements with possibly a mere trace of negro.”
Among the 206 Robeson County individuals tested, Seltzer diagnosed one man, Beadan Brooks, with “borderline” Indian-ness. The next year, the same year The Lost Colony opened in Manteo, Seltzer and his team returned to the Brooks settlement where they lined up and examined Brooks’ relatives. They found 20 “one-half or more Indian,” 11 “borderline,” and seven “near borderline.” Among the Brooks, there were 12 cases of full siblings—same mom, same dad—where one had been diagnosed as “half or more” and the other had received the prognosis of “borderline” or “near borderline.” Seltzer and his team explained this with the scientific equivalent of a shrug, chalking up the discrepancy to infidelity among the Natives.
While the Robeson County Indians were certainly having a lot of kids—they still joke about that—they’re also as Christian as they come, making infidelity an unlikely explanation for these discrepancies.
But what they do have in their sprawling bloodlines is a good number of non-Indian ancestors who decided, at some point in the near or distant past, that they wanted their blood relations and descendants to be Indians. Some of those ancestors may have been lost colonists. One may have even been named Virginia Dare.
In some of the most apocalyptic decades for Carolina Indians, the people chose to marry and raise families in Native communities on Native land—even though some of them weren’t even Native by blood. And over the years, their descendants worked and held onto that land, like the Locklears down on Locklear Road, who dug canals, chopped trees, and grew cornfields so they could feed their large and proud households.
Today, their bloodlines are so thick they say they weigh the Robeson County earth down like glaciers. And while other Indians were banished from their homelands along the Trail of Tears, those mixed Indians in Robeson County hid out in the impenetrable but bountiful swamps. (And, according to some family histories, in the Smoky Mountains, with the Eastern Band of Cherokee.)
When outsiders, like the Confederates, the Ku Klux Klan, and the United States military tried to mess with and uproot them, they stood their ground and kicked some ass so their blood could remain free and dignified on their land. And as the decades rolled on and the federal government enacted policies and processes to culturally assimilate and legally terminate tribes, the Robeson County Indians kept saying, “To heck with that, we are Indian!” no matter how many times they’ve been stopped in the pursuit of that truth.
Year after year, decade after decade, generation after generation, the Lumbee have insisted they be seen as who they are. Some, like Arlinda Locklear, believe in our shared fight as Indigenous peoples so deeply that they stood up in the highest courts in all this stolen land on behalf of people who couldn’t find it in themselves to show them even a little reciprocity.
That had nothing to do with whether their chest scratched brown, red, or purple; whether some government founded by rebellious Virginia colonists acquiesced; or even, for that matter, whether some Indians somewhere else in North Carolina or the United States stood in their way. That had to do with what came from within. It had to do, in a deeper sense, with their blood. Because the Lumbee know the significance of blood as well as any other. Their trickster hero, Henry Berry Lowry, is a guy who killed and chased off a litany of wicked men to protect his own, after all.
Seltzer, the federal government, the Senate, the Eastern Band of Cherokee, and apparently a good number of other tribes say that blood should mean something else. Or maybe what they really believe and feel inside looks a lot more like what the Lumbee believe and feel. Maybe what they say to the press and the politicians is, to liberally paraphrase what a number of people told me, bullshit.
Because the Eastern Band and many other Native nations have danced hard to Lumbee songs alongside Lumbee dancers. And if that isn’t a deeper form of recognition—a deeper statement of “I see you”—than the one that has people ahh to diagnose whether they had a case of the Indians, I don’t know what is.
And if that’s really how some say our Indian identity should be defined, I’d tell them about this tribe of 55,000 strong down in the North Carolina swamp who ascertain their kith and kin by asking: “Who’s your people?”
This September, I ran into Arlinda Locklear in a ballroom across the street from Capital One Arena in downtown Washington, D.C. Mary Peltola, a Yup’ik woman, had just defeated right-wing firebrand Sarah Palin in a special election in Alaska. When she was sworn in to serve the remainder of the late Rep. Don Young’s term, Peltola became the first-ever Alaska Native member of Congress.
Her election set a new high-water mark for the political representation of Indigenous peoples in the United States. The 117th Congress was the first to include members of American Indian, Native Hawaiian, and Alaska Native communities serving simultaneously. The Indigenous political class had gathered to celebrate. There were tribal chairman sporting bolo ties. Matriarchs fit with crisp, custom-sewn ribbon skirts. Peltola’s seven kids, all in mukluks. Arlinda was there too.
When Interior Secretary Deb Haaland of the Laguna Pueblo, the first-ever Native American cabinet secretary, took the podium, Arlinda and I were standing side by side. Haaland spoke about the unique challenges of being a first—of being erased and marginalized by the people and institutions around you—something I imagine Arlinda feels in her bones.
“Every single Native woman in this country wants Mary—Congresswoman Peltola—to succeed,” said Haaland, who was getting emotional. “That’s your job from here on out,” she said to the Indigenous leaders gathered before her. “To make sure that she has the support that she needs so that she is successful.”
As Haaland introduced Peltola, I was moved to say something to Arlinda.
“I feel so lucky to be standing next to the first Native woman to argue a case before the Supreme Court as the first Native American cabinet secretary introduces the first Alaska Native member of Congress,” I whispered, tears welling in my eyes. “I mean, how lucky am I just to witness this?”
“Oh, dear!” Arlinda replied with a warm embrace. “You are so sweet.”
Some fraction of Indian Country—maybe one-sixty-fourth, one-thirty-second, maybe one-sixteenth—does not see Arlinda and the Lumbee as its own. But our community, history, and achievements are greater, deeper, and richer when we do.
Julian Brave NoiseCat (Secwépemc/St’at’imc) is a visiting fellow of the Center for Racial Justice at the University of Michigan’s Ford School for Public Policy and a fellow of the Type Media Center. He’s currently writing his first book, We Survived the Night, which will be published by Alfred A. Knopf, as well as co-directing his first documentary, SUGARCANE.