By Sarah Nagem
John Lowery spent a lot of time as a child with his grandparents, working in the fields where they planted corn, butterbeans, squash and watermelons. He swam in the Lumber River during the hot North Carolina summers, and he played baseball with his friends.
“We were not rich at all, didn’t have a lot overall,” Lowery, now 40, said during an interview with the Border Belt Independent this month. “But we definitely had family.”
On Jan. 6, Lowery was sworn in as the seventh chairman of the Lumbee tribe. In his new role, he will oversee the tribe’s 60,000 members, many of whom also live in Robeson County and share his focus on faith, family and tradition – the Lumbee way of life.
Lowery will lead the tribe through the next chapter of its 134-year fight for full recognition from the United States government, a designation that would bring millions of federal dollars for services such as education and health care.
North Carolina officially recognized the tribe in 1885, and Congress gave partial recognition in 1956. Some opponents, including the Eastern Band of Cherokee in western North Carolina, say Lumbees should not have full recognition because they descend from multiple Native American tribes.
Lumbees, who got their name from the Lumber River where their ancestors lived along the swampy lands, argue they are just as deserving as other tribes.
Lowery, who served as the tribe’s federal recognition chairman more than a decade ago, said he’s all too familiar with the Congressional process that has raised and then dashed Lumbees’ hopes.
“I feel kind of fortunate that I’m stepping in this and not having rose-colored glasses on,” he said.
The U.S. House of Representatives voted in 2020 in favor of a bill to grant full recognition, but the Senate did not include the measure in its spending bill. The House said yes again last November, but the Senate has not yet voted.
Some people, including outgoing Lumbee chairman Harvey Godwin Jr., say they are confident this is the year the tribe will get full federal recognition.
“I think our Lumbee tribe is going to move forward like it’s never moved before,” Godwin Jr. said during Lowery’s swearing-in ceremony.
Lowery said he “campaigned on being more aggressive and assertive when it comes to our Congressional efforts.” If the Senate doesn’t pass the bill, he said, he wants to consider the next steps.
“I have already begun to look at options such as legal movements which could put us in a place to pursue some type of legal action against the United States government,” he said.
From Robeson County to Washington
Lowery lives in Lumberton with his wife and two children. But as a child, his family moved around Robeson County, and he spent many years in Red Springs.
The summer after 10th grade, Lowery said, he attended the United National Indian Tribal Youth conference in Arizona.
“That really kicked off my desire to want to learn more about other tribes,” he said. “As I got to college, I continued to do that.”
After graduating from Purnell Swett High School, he stayed close to home to attend the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, where he focused on political science and American Indian studies. He was also part of the Native American Student Organization and the American Indian Science and Engineering Society.
Later, he served on the Lumbee tribal council and returned to college to study education.
His career has taken him from the classrooms of Robeson County schools, where he taught high school civics, to the bustling streets of Washington, D.C., where he worked for the National Congress of American Indians and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
In Washington, he said, he learned how government policies affect Native American tribes across the country.
“It’s only been within the last decade or two that the United States government has actually tried to really, really consult with the tribes on Indian policies and (regulations),” he said.
Lowery said he learned a lot during that chapter of his life, but family called him home to Robeson County. He and his wife, who is a teacher, wanted their two young children to enjoy the kind of upbringing they had, full of visits with grandparents and other relatives.
Now Lowery works as the tribal liaison for Carolina Complete Health, a Medicaid company based in Charlotte. He said he decided to run for Lumbee chairman because he wanted to help guide the tribe’s future.
Lowery’s tenure as chairman got a bumpy start, however. Two days after he was sworn in, Lowery publicly announced that he tested positive for COVID-19.
The ceremony at UNC Pembroke was streamed online, and Lowery said in a statement that in-person attendance was limited to 200 people.
Lowery said he did not feel sick until the day after the event, and he soon felt better after taking over-the-counter medication.
“I felt as the newly sworn-in Lumbee Tribal Chairman, I needed to be transparent with our citizens about my health to make sure our people are safe,” he said, adding that the tribe was conducting contact tracing.
Lowery said he received the COVID vaccine months ago and will get a booster shot in the coming weeks. This is the second time in 12 months he contracted the virus, he said.
In Robeson County, 40% of residents are fully vaccinated, marking one of the lowest rates in the state, according to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. Statewide, 59% are fully vaccinated.
About 27% of Native Americans in Robeson are fully vaccinated, which is lower than all other racial groups in the county, data shows.
The tribe has continually encouraged its members to get the vaccine, creating YouTube videos with messages from Lumbee medical providers and others.
Lowery said benefits of the vaccine, which scientists say is safe and protects against severe illness, outweigh any potential risks.
“I get people at first being a little apprehensive,” Lowery told the BBI the day before he was sworn in. “But at the same time, we’ve lost people. We’ve lost a lot of elders. And even today, we’ve got people that are in the hospital right now.”
Missing and murdered Lumbees
During the ceremony, Lowery went through a list of his priorities: Bring back youth councils in an effort to foster future Lumbee leaders. Partner with UNC Pembroke to capture elders’ stories. Modernize the tribal government.
Lowery said he also wants to work with local partners to establish the Lumbee territory as a tourist destination, where people could kayak on the river, learn about the tribe and buy goods from local artisans.
“The world needs to know about our pine straw baskets, our jewelry, our recipes, our musicians, our paintings and so many more of our talents,” he said.
One idea seemed to garner the loudest applause – Lowery said he wants the council to set up an advisory committee on missing and murdered Lumbee women and men.
More than 600 women have been murdered or disappeared in Robeson County, according to the Missing Murdered Indigenous Coalition of North Carolina. The number could be higher, though, because it’s unclear how far back the data goes.
“We have a lot of families that need answers today, and I want the tribe to be a partner with our law enforcement friends and those within the justice system to help put pieces together needed to solve these issues,” Lowery said.
“We have a lot of hurt people in our community,” he continued. “And yes, a lot of it is tied to drugs. But you know what? (People) deserve to know what happened to their sons, their daughters, their fathers, their mothers.”
Lowery anticipates the tribe would receive up to $300 million a year if full federal recognition is granted. He told the BBI some of the money could be used to build a drug treatment center for Lumbees struggling with addiction.
“Our people need a place for when they’re ready to get clean,” he said. “And it needs to be somewhere near home.”
The waiting game continues when it comes to recognition, but tribal leaders thanked the bi-partisan group of Congress members from North Carolina who support the measure.
In an impassioned speech during the swearing-in ceremony, Lumbee Tribal Council member Wendy Moore said Lumbees are “a strong and resilient people” who won’t stop fighting for what they deserve.
“We are Lumbee, we are proud, and we are strong, and we are still here, determined for federal recognition,” she said.
Lowery put it this way: “I don’t want to lose another elder who is not considered a true American Indian by the United States.”
Follow Sarah Nagem on Twitter: @sarah_nagem