Introduction to the Lumbee

Stilling, Glenn Ellen Starr. "Lumbee Indians." Encyclopedia of North Carolina. Ed. William S. Powell. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2006. Pages 699-703.

The full article is reprinted below, with permission from the University of North Carolina Press. The article is copyrighted by the University of North Carolina Press; all rights reserved.

Lumbee Indians

The Lumbee tribe, with 53,800 enrolled members, was in the early 2000s the largest of North Carolina’s American Indian groups and the ninth-largest tribe in the United States. The Lumbee have been identified by a number of names during the history of their official relationship with the state of North Carolina. Native historians believe that the modern tribal name originates from the Lumber River, which traverses Robeson County and is an important historical, cultural, and spiritual symbol for many tribal members. Most Lumbees live in Robeson County and the adjacent counties of Cumberland, Hoke, and Scotland, and these counties are considered by the Lumbee Tribal Council to be the tribe’s home territory, although there are also sizable communities of Lumbee people in Greensboro and elsewhere. Some Lumbees resided in the Bulloch County, Ga., area from 1890 through 1920. The Robeson County communities of Pembroke, Prospect, Union Chapel, Fairgrove, and Magnolia have long been predominantly Lumbee.

Theories of Lumbee Origins

The earliest and perhaps most famous theory of the Lumbee tribe’s origins is the so-called Lost Colony theory, proposed in 1885 by Robeson County legislator and local historian Hamilton McMillan and later expanded upon by North Carolina historian Stephen B. Weeks. The theory holds that the Lumbee are descendants of Sir Walter Raleigh’s Roanoke Island colonists. The colonists left their settlement, according to the theory, sometime after Governor John White had returned to England in 1587, moving south to an island or mainland location called “Croatoan”—the sole word White and his men found carved in a wooden post upon returning to the island in 1590. There the English colonists settled among and intermarried with the friendly Croatan Indians, and by 1650 they migrated to the area of present-day Robeson County. The Lost Colony theory gained considerable credence among Lumbee people as well as non-Indians when Lumbee historian and author Adolph Dial argued in favor of it during the latter half of the twentieth century.

John R. Swanton, an anthropologist with the Smithsonian Institution, wrote a report for the U.S. Department of the Interior in 1933 on the probable origins of the Lumbee. His research concluded that the tribe descended mainly from Siouan tribes, primarily the Saura (Cheraw) and Keyauwee. The Saura theory of origin has also been supported by Jack Campisi, an ethnohistorian who was the primary author of the tribe’s massive 1987 petition to the Bureau of Indian Affairs seeking full federal tribal recognition, and by William Sturtevant, editor of the Smithsonian Institution’s Handbook of North American Indians.

Several other theories have been advanced, including the Cherokee theory, which states that during the Tuscarora War of 1711–13, Cherokees joined Col. John Barnwell in fighting the Tuscarora and marched home through Robeson County. Some Cherokees may have remained there and intermarried with local residents. Angus Wilton McLean, a Robesonian who served as governor, advocated this theory before Congress in 1913. Mary W. Norment, in an 1875 book, also proposed descent from the Tuscarora. Lumbee oral tradition reveals no fewer than four other migration theories, documented by anthropologist Robert K. Thomas in an unpublished 1976 report.

Archaeological research reported by Stanley Knick in 1988 established that the land that makes up Robeson County has been inhabited by native peoples continuously from 12,000  b.c. (the early Paleo-Indian period), through the Archaic period (8000–1000  b.c.) and Woodland period (1000  b.c.–1600 a.d.), and up to the present day. In addition, Robeson County was a zone of cultural contact from the Middle Archaic period through the Woodland period and into colonial times. Knick argues that Indians from tribes of three eastern Carolina language families (Algonquian, Iroquoian, and Eastern Siouan) interacted with the Indians already living in the area. Early in the colonial period, European diseases and Indian wars began to decimate the southeastern tribes. As these processes unfolded, remnants of tribes from the three Eastern Carolina language families—primarily Saura and Siouan-speaking Indians—coalesced with the Indians already living in geographically isolated Robeson County. The area, dominated by swamps and other marginal lands for settlement and agriculture, did not generally interest whites, so the Indians’ chance of survival was increased. Evidence suggests that the amalgamated tribe that became the Lumbee was in place in Robeson County by 1750.

Discrimination and Injustice in the Nineteenth Century

Like most of North Carolina’s American Indian people, the Lumbee lived in relative obscurity for much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Any sense of difference was likely tempered by the fact that Lumbee people spoke English, followed the same agricultural practices as white settlers, attended Christian churches, and in many other ways blended in with the rest of the sparse population of the marginal lands in and around Robeson County. For political and other purposes, prior to the revised state constitution of 1835, the Lumbee were classified as “free persons of color.” But the 1835 constitution decreed that “no free Negro, free mulatto, or free person of mixed blood, descended from ancestors to the fourth generation inclusive” could vote for state legislators. Under this constitution, Lumbee people, like other American Indians in the state, lost many of their civil rights. Later, the Lumbee and other free nonwhites were also stripped of their rights to serve in the militia or to own or carry firearms or other weapons without a license. Some Lumbees used the courts to challenge their classification as free persons of color. The June 1837 court case State v. Oxendine, the 1853 case State v. Noel Locklear, and an 1857 case against William Chavers for carrying a shotgun are examples in which the challenge proved successful.

The Lumbee endured many privations and injustices during the Civil War, including forced conscription to serve as laborers building fortifications at Fort Fisher near Wilmington, starvation, and harsh treatment by the Home Guard. One such incident led to the rise of perhaps the most famous figure in tribal history, Henry Berry Lowry. Due to a complex series of accusations and incidents involving thefts and conscription, the Home Guard shot Lowry’s father and brother while he watched from hiding. He and a triracial band of supporters then began an eight-year (1865–72) “war” to avenge those deaths and, indirectly, other injustices suffered by the Lumbee people. The Lowry Band, outlawed in 1868, killed 18 men and was pursued by local, state, and federal militia, detectives, and bounty hunters. The reward for Lowry rose from $300 in 1866 to $12,000 in 1871–72. Lowry was arrested twice, escaped from pursuers many times (and from jail on the two occasions when he was arrested), and was never tried. He disappeared mysteriously in February 1872, and today he remains an important symbol of Lumbee pride and the tribe’s authentic Indian identity.

Lumbee Pursuit of Education, Civil Rights, and Self-Governance

A desire for education has traditionally been a central concern of the Lumbee. Amendments to the state constitution in 1875 provided for segregated public schools but made no mention of Indians. Lumbees were disallowed from attending white schools and, consistent with their resistance of having laws restricting blacks applied to them, they would not attend schools for African Americans. Progress began with an 1885 state law, sponsored by Rep. Hamilton McMillan, that designated the tribe as “Croatan Indians” and provided for them separate schools, their own school committees, and the right to select their own teachers. McMillan sponsored a second law, enacted in 1887, that provided for the establishment of a normal (or teacher-training) school for the Croatans and set aside $500 for instructor salaries. Public school education began to improve in the 1920s, when the normal school had graduated several teachers. Thirty-one subscription schools (one-room wooden buildings) were built by Indians in Indian communities. By 1924 Robeson County Indian schools had a total enrollment of 3,400 students.

The growth of the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, which began as a school for the Lumbee in the late 1800s, is an important example of Lumbee educational efforts. The Lumbee have also worked for educational rights through legal activism. In the 1940s many Lumbees attempted to gain admission to colleges within North Carolina other than the school in Pembroke, and in 1972 tribal members fought to preserve Old Main, the building on the Pembroke campus that, for them, symbolized Indian education and progress. By the 1960s Robeson County had five school systems—four town systems, attended by whites and blacks, and a county system, attended mainly by Indians and blacks. Under the county’s “double-voting” arrangement, residents of the towns could vote for both the town and the county school boards, but county residents could vote only for the county school board. In 1972–73 the county school system had 80 percent nonwhite enrollment, but the 12-member school board was 75 percent white. After Lumbee leaders were unable to change the situation through appeals to the state legislature, they sued under the Voting Rights Act in federal court. The court denied relief, but in 1975, in Janie Maynor Locklear v. North Carolina State Board of Elections, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the lower court, saying that town residents could no longer vote for county school board members.

The most famous case of Lumbee activism occurred on 18 Jan. 1958 at a field near Hayes Pond, west of Maxton, provoked by two cross-burnings a few days earlier—one at the home of an Indian family in an all-white Lumberton neighborhood and the other at the home of a white woman who was involved with an Indian man. A planned Ku Klux Klan rally, announced by Klan grand wizard James W. “Catfish” Cole of Marion, S.C., received heavy advance publicity. The Lumbee made known their plans to disrupt the event.

The rally was attended by about 40 armed Klansmen, the county sheriff and several deputies, many newspaper and wire service reporters, and 1,500 or more Indians armed with rifles and shotguns. In preparation, the Klan put up a large banner, a sound system, and a naked light bulb atop a tall pole. While Cole was talking to the sheriff and deliberating on whether to begin his speech, one Lumbee grabbed the light pole while another broke the light bulb. A burst of shooting began. In twenty minutes, the shooting had ended, the Klan members had run off, and the field was cleared. There were no deaths, and the only injury was to a photographer whose face was grazed by shotgun pellets. The incident received widespread publicity, with coverage in Life magazine and the New York Times.

Other violent incidents have occurred in Robeson County. During the 1980s, drug trafficking and racial violence were the cause of several unsolved murders in the county. Poor economic and educational conditions were widespread, and reports documented unfair treatment of Native Americans by the criminal justice system. Large numbers of Native Americans, blacks, and whites held mass political meetings to address these and other concerns. A coalition, Concerned Citizens for Better Government, was formed and turned out 1,500 people for a protest march on Easter Monday 1987. The group supported the candidacy of Lumbee lawyer Julian Pierce for superior court judge. When Pierce was murdered in March 1988, local law enforcement officials proclaimed the case solved as a domestic dispute four days later.

On 1 Feb. 1988 Eddie Hatcher and Timothy Jacobs, both Tuscarora Indians, held the employees of the Robesonian newspaper hostage for ten hours in order to draw attention to the county’s drug trafficking, violence, and corruption. As a condition of their release of the hostages, Hatcher and Jacobs obtained an agreement from the governor that a task force of state officials would be formed to investigate the problems. The incident brought national attention to Robeson County (although much of it was viewed by residents as unfavorable rather than sympathetic), and many positive changes resulted. The county appointed a triracial Human Relations and Unity Commission. A second Superior Court judgeship was created, and Lumbee Dexter Brooks was appointed to the position. A plan was developed to balance election districts for the County Commission according to the county’s racial percentages, and the county’s crime rate dropped. Lumbee people also attained new leadership positions. In 1992, for example, Lumbee Purnell Swett was offered the position of superintendent of the merged public schools of Robeson County. In 1994 Glenn Maynor was elected as the county’s first Native American sheriff. The Lumbee tribe has had formal governance since 2001, when it installed its first elected tribal council, adopted a constitution, and appointed a supreme court.

The Fight for Federal Recognition

The Lumbee have never received funding through the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs or the Indian Health Service, although the tribe has been working to obtain true federal recognition since 1888. By virtue of state recognition, they have received aid from other federal programs for Indians. In 1935 the Lumbee received a memo from the U.S. Department of the Interior stating that those who were of one-half or more Indian blood could organize under the Wheeler-Howard Indian Reorganization Act to receive employment, education, or reservation benefits. To determine who was eligible, Harvard anthropologist Carl C. Seltzer was sent to Robeson County to test the 209 Lumbees who were applying for recognition. According to his anthropometric measurements, only 22 qualified. Although Seltzer’s methods fit the theories of race at that time, they later came to be viewed as invalid.

Several other bills representing various strategies for obtaining support for the Lumbee were introduced in Congress, but all were unsuccessful until the 1956 Lumbee Act. It designated the Indians living in Robeson and adjoining counties as “Lumbee Indians of North Carolina” (the state of North Carolina had recognized the Lumbee name three years earlier). The final sentence declared that the act did not make them eligible for any federal services offered to Indians, however, and that federal laws affecting Indians did not apply to the Lumbee.

In 1978 a set of seven mandatory criteria for federal acknowledgment of tribes was published in an attempt to make the process of recognizing additional tribes uniform, rigorous, and systematic. Tribes are required to prepare a detailed petition addressing all of these criteria, and the petition is then evaluated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Office of Federal Acknowledgment. The Lumbee spent seven years preparing their three-volume petition and submitted it in 1987. Two years later, the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Office of the Solicitor issued a ruling that the language of the 1956 Lumbee Act forbade a relationship between the Lumbee and the federal government through the bureau. Therefore, the petition could not be considered unless Congress amended the last sentence of the Lumbee Act. This action prompted the Lumbee to continue seeking federal recognition by asking Congress to pass a new recognition bill, rather than asking that the 1956 act be amended and probably waiting many more years for their petition to be evaluated. From 1988 through 2003, the Lumbee introduced 12 bills asking for complete federal recognition. Two practically identical bills seeking Lumbee recognition were introduced in 2004 by Senator Elizabeth Dole and Congressman Mike McIntyre; Dole introduced another bill, the Lumbee Recognition Act, in March 2005.

Lumbee Language and Culture

The North Carolina Language and Life Project at North Carolina State University has conducted extensive research on Lumbee speech beginning in 1994. Researchers have found that Lumbee Vernacular English is much like other southern dialects, especially Appalachian English. It does, however, have its own distinctive features. Some of its unusual vocabulary words include “cuz” (a greeting for a fellow Lumbee) and “toten” (a smell, sound, or vision indicating the presence of a spirit). Linguistic features of Lumbee Vernacular English include perfective “I’m” (“I’m got to do it”), finite “bes” (“sometimes it bes that way”), and consonant cluster reduction (“ol’” for “old,” for example). Some of the ways in which Lumbee speakers combine and pronounce words distinguish them from African American or white speakers in Robeson County.

  The writings of anthropologists, Lumbee scholars, and a diverse array of “ordinary” Lumbee people illustrate several aspects of tribal culture. Placing great value on family is one key characteristic of the Lumbee, who typically maintain frequent (often daily) contact with extended family members. Children often live near their parents or on their parents’ land. Most Lumbees marry within the tribe; a sampling of the tribal roll in 2002 showed that 70 percent of Lumbees were married to another tribal member. Many Lumbee people also have extensive knowledge of their personal genealogy.

Faith, church attendance, and love of church and gospel music are also central to Lumbee culture. According to one estimate, Robeson County has some 130 Lumbee churches (the majority of them Methodist and Baptist). The church serves a strong social function in Lumbee culture, involving members in a variety of activities beyond the Sunday worship service. Churches have also served as training grounds for Lumbee political, educational, and business leaders.

  The Lumbee have always had a deep love for Robeson County and the Lumber River—often calling it the “Lumbee”—and a desire to own and hold onto their land. In the early 2000s, 64.6 percent of tribal members lived in seven primarily Lumbee communities in Robeson County, and another 30 percent lived elsewhere within North Carolina. Most Lumbees who have moved away (usually to find work) still consider Robeson County their home and return frequently to visit family, for the Lumbee Homecoming (a large festival held since 1970 around 4 July), and when retirement or job availability makes it feasible.

References: Karen I. Blu, The Lumbee Problem: The Making of an American Indian People (1980; rev. ed., 2001); Adolph L. Dial, The Lumbee (1993); Dial and David K. Eliades, The Only Land I Know: A History of the Lumbee Indians (rev. ed., 1996); Stanley Knick, The Lumbee in Context: Toward an Understanding (2000); Gerald M. Sider, Living Indian Histories: Lumbee and Tuscarora People in North Carolina (2003); Glenn Ellen Starr Stilling, The Lumbee Indians: An Annotated Bibliography Supplement (Web site, 2002-current); Walt Wolfram and others, Fine in the World: Lumbee Language in Time and Place (2002).

—By Glenn Ellen Starr Stilling