Racial identity and the federal recognition process: a case study of the Lumbee Indians.

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Wilkins, David. Racial identity and the federal recognition process: a case study of the Lumbee Indians. Paper presented at: “ ‘Eating out of the same pot’: relating Black and Indian (hi)stories.” Hanover, NH: Dartmouth College, April 2002. 14 pages.


In this perceptive, forthright paper, Professor Wilkins—who has written extensively on Lumbee efforts to obtain true federal recognition—describes the“tri-racial isolationism” of Robeson county in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when his father retired from the Army and moved the family there. He then discusses his first powwow, his travels and exposure to Native Americans (and Native American activism) on a broader level, and his archival, genealogical, political, and historical research to understand the origins of his and other Southeastern tribes and the barriers that had kept them from achieving true federal recognition. He discusses three categories of motivations the Lumbee have for pursuing recognition, and four reasons why they have thus far failed to achieve it. He talks in depth about the fourth reason—Racial/Cultural. Finally, he issues a “wake-up call” to the Lumbee in regard to their history and the benefits of improving their relations with Blacks.

The three categories of reasons the Lumbee have pursued true federal recognition are (1) political/legal (to gain a degree of sovereignty over their people, their territory, and—to an extent—over non-Lumbees; (2) fiscal (to become eligible for services and benefits that are only available to members of tribes with true federal recognition; and (3) normative. Wilkins asserts that the third reason is the most compelling, especially for older members of the tribe. He explains: “ ... they seek federal recognition as a form of justice long denied them. In other words, they have suffered a great deal of discrimination because they are Indians yet they are denied the basic rights and protections accorded to recognized Indian tribes because of their status as Indians” (p. 6).

The four categories of reasons the Lumbee have not yet succeeded in gaining true federal recognition are:

  1. Policy/Administrative. Three of the eras during which the Lumbee were making major efforts to gain recognition (the 1880s-1920s, the 1950s, and the 1980s) were periods when the federal government was striving to terminate or to drastically reduce its relationship to Native Americans. The fourth era, the 1930s, was the IRA period, during which the federal government was creating a new tribal status, federally recognized, which hurt many tribes by dichotomizing the nation’s Native Americans.
  2. Fiscal/Demographic. Many opponents of recognition for the Lumbee argue that there are too many Lumbee and that recognition for them would reduce the amount of federal money available for services to members of tribes that are already recognized.
  3. Administrative/Legislative. In 1978, the petition process for federal recognition was established, under the administration of the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Branch of Acknowledgment and Research. Since that time, various parties have disagreed over whether Congress or the BIA is the most suitable authority for recognizing Indian tribes. The Lumbee have since discovered that the 1956 Lumbee Act “terminated” them at the same time it gave them a limited form of recognition; thus they are ineligible for the administrative (BIA) recognition process.
  4. Racial/Cultural. Wilkins identifies this as “the most important set of factors used by Lumbee opponents” (p. 9), “almost a stealth set of issues” that is usually discussed in “coded musings” (pp. 9, 13). Such discussions focus on certain “traits” of Indianness that the Lumbee appear to lack (a distinctive aboriginal language and religion; a reservation; and treaties with the federal government) and other “traits” that they have too much of (admixture of non-Indian racial characteristics, both White and Black; but negative emphasis is usually placed on the the latter). Wilkins notes that both oral and documentary evidence show that Lumbee ancestors intermarried with Blacks (mostly prior to 1800) and occasionally with Whites and with other tribes since then. He also questions, “How many tribes have not had a history of intermarrying with other peoples, regardless of race, ethnicity, or national origin?” [Note: See also comments from William W. Quinn, Jr., ethnohistorian for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, in his 1987 conference paper (QUIN001) that “relative to 25 CFR 83, triraciality is a non-issue” (p. 9) and his statement in the same paper that the BIA has no requirement for a minimum Indian blood quantum for federal acknowledgment.]

    Wilkins concludes his paper with these remarks and advice:

    “Lumbees an d Blacks, ‘by eating out of the same pot’ and doing other things together, even if for a brief time, netted results that, for all the wrong reasons, have severely complicated the Lumbee’s efforts to establish formal diplomatic ties with the federal government. This fact should give one pause in thinking about the fairness of the government’s recognition criteria and the way those criteria are interpreted. And should serve as a wake up call to the Lumbee to recover their history and seek to improve relations with Blacks who, like themselves, have been historically oppressed. While Robeson County, and not the Lumbee, is the tri-racial isolate, there is no good reason why Lumbees and Blacks, who constitute two thirds of that population, need to remain isolated from one another. Together, they, along with allies from the other third, could begin to establish political and economic coalitions that would improve both people’s lot in important respects” (pp. 13-14).

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Professor Wilkins has given me permission to distribute the text of his paper via e-mail attachment. Interested readers should contact me at: glennellen@boone.net.