Published on October 27, 2010 by John
The Lumbee are a Native American tribe recognized by the state of North Carolina and the US Government. The name “Lumbee” is derived from the word lumber or Lumber River, which winds through Robeson County, North Carolina. The river was named for the extensive lumber trade in the region in the early 19th century. Purnell Swett is the Lumbee tribal chairman.
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In 1885, the Lumbee were recognized by the State of North Carolina as Croatan Indians. They unsuccessfully sought federal recognition thereafter. In 1952, after a request from tribal members, the Robeson County Commissioners conducted a tribal referendum on the tribal name. Tribal members voted for adoption of the name “Lumbee Indians of North Carolina”. The Lumbee claim to be descendants of the Cheraw and related Siouan-speaking tribes originally inhabiting part of the coastal regions of the state of North Carolina. However, some members disagree and claim to be descendants of the Iroquoian-speaking Tuscarora tribe who originally inhabited northeastern North Carolina.
In 1956, the United States Congress passed H.R. 4656, known as the Lumbee Act, which recognized the Lumbee as Native Americans. In consultation with the tribe as a condition of recognition, Congress at the same time excluded the Lumbee from receiving the federal services ordinarily provided to federally recognized tribes through the Bureau of Indian Affairs. As the only tribe in this circumstance, the Lumbee have since then sought full federal recognition through congressional legislation. Federal recognition through congressional legislation is supported by some federally recognized tribe and opposed by others, including the Tuscarora Nation of New York, most recently in 2007.
For instance, the Cherokee Nation [of Oklahoma] has outwardly supported the Lumbee tribe’s efforts for federal recognition through Congress with many past and current principal chiefs making public statements to the fact. Including, the recently deceased Wilma Mankiller who was principal chief from 1985-1995. Ironically, unlike their brothers and sisters to the West, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians [of North Carolina] have consistently opposed Lumbee efforts for federal recognition.
Origins and legends
The area of North Carolina today called home by the Lumbee is Robeson County. Until 1787 it was part of Bladen County. When North Carolina Governor Matthew Rowan dispatched surveying parties in 1753 to count Indians in the state, the report stated there were “no Indians in the county”.
Colonial tax records from 1768 to 1770 identified Thomas Britt as the only Indian in Bladen County. Britt is not a surname traditionally associated with Lumbee families. Inhabitants of Bladen County with surnames that have been traditionally associated with Lumbee families were classified as “Mullato” in the tax records.
A colonial proclamation in 1773 listed the names of Robeson County inhabitants who took part in a “Mob Railously Assembled together”, apparently defying the efforts of colonial officials to collect taxes. The proclamation declared the “Above list of Rogus” [sic], which included many names of those since defined as traditionally Lumbee families, “is all Free Negors [sic, Negroes] and Mullatus living upon the Kings Land”. A colonial military survey described, “50 families a mixt crew a lawless People possess the Lands without Patent or paying quit Rents.”
In the first federal census of 1790, the ancestors of the Lumbee were among those enumerated as “free persons of color”, a category used to describe all free non-whites (including mixed-race European-Africans, Indians, and mixed-race European-Indians). Basically, anybody who was a not pure white not was counted as a free people of color. In subsequent censuses, they were counted in “all other free persons” or “Mulatto”. In the 1870 census, the first in which “Indian” was a separate category, almost all Robeson County residents with surnames since associated as Lumbee were classified as “Mulatto”. Many states choose to subject Indians to such state census policies because it was beneficial to have more people for Congressional representation and it was less a headache to deal with a sovereign nation withn your borders whom you couldn’t tax. It’s similar to why southern states wanted to count their slaves as persons for census records to get an edge over northern states. The only difference is that in this instance was both the north and south realized the potential to count their Indians as “other” or “colored” allowing them to fudge their numbers and get more representation and often more federal money.
Alarmed by the Nat Turner’s slave rebellion of 1831, North Carolina and other southern states enacted a series of laws known as the Free Negro Code, which curtailed the rights of “free citizens of color”. In 1835, North Carolina adopted a new constitution abolishing their right to vote, which had been granted by the 1776 constitution. During the debate, Judge Gaston of Craven County stated the majority of free persons of color in North Carolina in the colonial period were the descendants of white women who had unions with black men and were “therefore (because of the race of the mother) entitled to all the rights of free men”. The legislature rejected his argument and revoked the right to vote of free people of color, regardless of their maternal ancestry, birth status, property holdings, or literacy (the franchise had sometimes depended on the latter two requirements).
In 1840, thirty-six white Robeson County residents signed a petition complaining that Robeson County had been “cursed” by the presence of what they described as being a “free colored” population that migrated originally from the districts near the Roanoke and Neuse rivers.
The first recorded reference to any members of the population as Indian dates from 1867, shortly after the American Civil War. During a multiple murder investigation by a Lieutenant Birney of the Freedman’s Bureau, two suspects wrote a letter that referred to the Lowry gang: “They are said to be descended from the Tuscarora Indians. They have always claimed to be Indian & disdained the idea that they are in any way connected with the African race”. The Freedman’s Bureau had jurisdiction over the newly emancipated slaves, not free Indians. So a report that denied and restricted their own power or authority over the Lumbee is given much respect and viewed in high regard.
In 1872 George Alfred Townsend published The Swamp Outlaws, about the Lowrie Gang. Townsend described Henry Berry Lowrie, the leader of the gang, as being of mixed Tuscarora and white blood and then went on to say of Pop Oxendine, “Like the rest, he had the Tuscarora Indian blood in him…If I should describe the man by the words nearest my idea I should call him an Indian gypsy”.