The Lumbee problem: the making of an American Indian people.

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Blu, Karen I. The Lumbee problem: the making of an American Indian people. 1980; Lincoln: Nebraska UP, 2001. Key source


Blu did extensive fieldwork in Robeson County; excerpts from her notes are included as direct quotations. Her thorough research in both published and unpublished literature is reflected in the book’s bibliography. Provides accurate, precise treatments of the major topics and events. Analyzes Lumbees’ perception of themselves and the meaning of Indianness to them. Discusses how each race in the county perceives itself and the other two races. Covers political participation; the attempted coalition with Blacks; their tactics for improving conditions after 1865; and relations with other mixed-blood groups, such as the Smilings. The final chapter analyzes ways of looking at Lumbee identity.

The 2001 paperback reprint adds the new Afterword by the author (pages 236-257, with 12 notes and 37 works cited). The following paragraphs discuss the Afterword.

This scholarly essay is at once an account of how the Lumbee people and community have changed since Blu did her field work there around 1967 and a very personal discussion of her response to reactions to (and sometimes misinterpretations of) her book. She also shares her feelings about renewing acquaintances with the Lumbee community in preparation for this essay.

Blu begins by describing the changes in Lumbee land that she perceived when she visited in November 2000. There were signs of progress (such as the Lumbee Guaranty Bank, name signs on county roads, and a luxurious new barn), but there were also families experiencing economic distress.

Blu found herself deeply moved (as I also did recently) by returning to Pembroke after several years’ absence and re-encountering Lumbee friendliness, sincere interest in individuals, and strong sense of community. 

Blu cares deeply about readers of her book—particularly Lumbee readers. She explains what her intentions were when she chose the title The Lumbee problem and, in the text, quoted from earlier derogatory writings about the Lumbee. These two choices distressed some Lumbee readers. Blu’s intention was to show the “problem” regarding the Lumbee from two different perspectives: for the Lumbee themselves, showing outsiders that the Lumbee are a distinct people, in spite of pressures from the dominant society to conform or to disappear. For anthropologists, the “problem” was understanding and describing how the Lumbee managed to maintain their distinct identity.

Blu, as did other anthropologists at the time (1980), discussed the Indian identity of the Lumbee in social and cultural terms; but many people in the general population saw (and still see) Indian identity as biological. Though Blu’s intentions were just the opposite, a fair number of readers took the title of the book, her discussion of social and cultural manifestations of Indianness (rather than biology), and her quoting and discussing earlier, derogatory writings about the Lumbee to mean that she did not believe the Lumbee qualify as an Indian tribe. Blu states that she found such misunderstandings—and the misuse, by some readers, of her book to argue the opposite of her intentions—very upsetting.

To make her intentions clear, Blu provides an excerpt from a strong, convincing letter she wrote for the 1992 Congressional hearing on a Lumbee federal recognition bill. This letter summarized her arguments and conclusions about the Indian identity of the Lumbee:

“By any reasonable definition, the Lumbee people are Native Americans and are and have been a functioning Indian community . . . . Continuities with the past have been maintained by the Lumbee in the face of many changes. Indian identity for them and for other Native Americans is profoundly cultural, a piece of a moral universe for those who hold it. It is not carried on a gene, it is not lost when Indians change their ways of making a living or use a different language. It is a way of seeing, a mode of understanding, a way of being in the world.” (Blu 1992, quoted on pages 241-242)

Blu touches on the ongoing issue of federal recognition for the Lumbee. Blu’s discussion, in The Lumbee problem, of the Lumbee within the context of whites and blacks in Robeson County, and in a broader state and national context; her shaping of the book using current anthropological “people” rather than “tribe” for the Lumbee all caused consternation for some Lumbee readers and made the book perhaps less useful to the Lumbee in their struggle for federal recognition than an ethnography might have been.

Returning to her discussion of changes among the Lumbee and in Robeson County since the research and publication of The Lumbee problem, Blu enumerates Lumbee authors and scholars who have been “telling their own stories”—some, such as the Barton family, since 1967. She describes changes and expansions of work related to the Lumbee and to American Indian Studies at UNC-Pembroke. She notes the use of newer media (for instance, Malinda Maynor’s documentary video and CD-ROM, Sounds of Faith). Changes in Lumbee land include the election of Lumbees to political offices at local, county, and state levels; evidence of economic prosperity in Pembroke; and a growing Spanish-speaking population in the county. Particularly moving and heartfelt is her discussion of “the ties that bind”—the family relationships that are still central to Lumbee identity.

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