As Lumbee tribe picks a new leader, will this be the year for full federal recognition?

By Sarah Nagem

Members of the Lumbee Native American tribe will elect a new leader on Tuesday, about a week after the tribe’s effort to gain full federal recognition once again passed a crucial first step.

The U.S. House of Representatives voted in favor of the Lumbee Recognition Act on Nov. 1, and now the bill will go before the Senate – where it got held up last year despite support from President Donald Trump.

The three candidates vying for the tribal chairman seat – Corbin Eddings, Theresa Locklear and John Lowery – say full federal recognition is crucial for the Lumbees. It would mean more money for health care, housing, education, economic development, conservation and other services.

“We could have our own medical facilities,” said Locklear, a member of the Pembroke Town Council who hopes to become the first woman to win the tribal chair seat. “It would help our people so much.”

Gaining full recognition would be “a correction of a grave injustice” for the tribe’s 60,000 members, said Lowery, who served on the tribal council more than a decade ago.

The state of North Carolina officially recognized the Robeson County-based tribe in 1885. Congress voted in 1956 to give the tribe partial recognition, which comes without all of the financial benefits.

Eddings, who currently serves as the tribe’s vice chairman, said he would “thank the Lord” if 2021 is the year the Lumbees get full recognition.

But, he said, “If it was about doing what’s right, it would have happened a long time ago.”

The issue has gained bipartisan support in Washington, and President Joe Biden has said he supports full recognition for the tribe.

But there are also opponents, including the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, which is the only tribe in North Carolina with full federal recognition.

Principal Chief Richard Sneed testified against Lumbee recognition during a House subcommittee meeting in late 2019.

“We are Cherokee not because we woke up one day and decided to be,” Sneed said, according to the Smoky Mountain News. “We are Cherokee because we always have been, from time immemorial.”

Sneed said his tribal members’ ancestors survived the Trail of Tears, “one of the most calculated genocides in the history of mankind.”

To gain full federal recognition, tribes must show that they are from a particular geographic area and that members descend from Native Americans who aren’t part of another tribe.

The Lumbees are believed to have descended from several tribes who settled along the Lumber River – a part of southeastern North Carolina now known for the Interstate 95 and U.S. 74 corridors.

Other tribes have gained recognition based on geography, Eddings said.

“The question should be: Are we indigenous? Are we native?” he said. “Of course we are.”

Eddings said the pushback isn’t about ethnicity, and it’s really about money.

If the Lumbees put a casino or gaming services along I-95, Eddings said, that could pull tourism money away from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in western North Carolina.

But full recognition wouldn’t automatically mean the Lumbees could open a casino. The measure would go before the entire tribe for a vote.

“There’s been no push to do a vote on that, and I don’t think there’s going to be a push on that vote any time soon,” Lowery said.

A casino would provide much-needed jobs in the economically depressed region, Eddings said. But economic development might not be enough to win over voters.

“This is the Bible belt,” Eddings said. “Our folks would gladly take it off the table if it meant recognition, because that’s never been our focus. That’s not what it’s about for us.”

Instead, all three candidates say it’s about providing services to the Lumbee people. Here’s a breakdown of their priorities:

Corbin Eddings

Eddings, 52, is married and has two sons. He owns an insurance agency.

He said he heard a lot on the campaign trail about families struggling with opioid addiction.

He wants to secure federal funding to open an in-patient drug treatment center. That way, he said, people dealing with addiction could get help close to home, “from people who look like them, sound like them.”

“What we’ve got to do is remember they’re still good people; they just have a problem,” Eddings said. “Our responsibility is, how do we help them with the problem?”

Eddings said he also wants to help the tribe better communicate about the resources it offers, including pandemic rental assistance, transitional housing and a student-housing voucher program for kids starting college.

Theresa Locklear

Locklear, a grandmother of six, said she wants the tribe to better communicate with the town of Pembroke and the University of North Carolina at Pembroke.

The town has benefited from working more closely with the university, she added.

“If you build relationships, you can get more grant money and more assistance,” Locklear said. “It’s been a great relationship.”

As an investigator with the Robeson County Public Defender’s office, Locklear said she knows the devastating effects the opioid epidemic has had on the community.

“I saw the needs of our people,” she said, “and I felt like our people needed someone to pull us back together as a tribe.”

Locklear said the area needs more small businesses, and the tribe should set up a small-business directory.

John Lowery

Lowery, 40, is married and has two children. He works as a tribal liaison for a Medicaid company.

He said he wants the tribe to work with UNCP and Robeson County Community College to create job-training programs.

He also said tourism on the Lumber River could become an economic driver.

“There’s an opportunity for us to help clean up the river, to create sites on the river where our folks can have access to canoe and kayak and go fishing.”

Lowery said the tribe needs to come together in support. Many Lumbees are great artists, he noted.

“The tribe is in a good place to help them push that – maybe create something like a co-op,” he said.

Thousands of people gathered in Pembroke over the summer for Lumbee Homecoming.
Photo by Sarah Nagem