Saturday, July 22, 2006

Lumbee Rising

Negative rumors, ignorant piety, insulting and degrading slurs, and political intrigue have a long history in Native American affairs in the United States. The first instance of germ warfare in the history of the world involved Puritan settlers "charitably" giving blankets to "the savages" to help them stay warm for the winter. Of course, the blankets had been used by smallpox patients - a disease far more deadly to the natives, whose immune systems had never encountered it - a fact that the settlers (who usually burned such blankets) neglected to tell them. A journal entry from the time recounts a prominent figure in (white) American history gleefully noting that a smallpox scourge had "conveniently" decimated the native village, leaving plenty of good, already tilled farmland and nice household goods for the settlers to appropriate (read - steal).

I know. This is all in the past. We've given the natives recognition as inheritors of the land. Of course, this is after we have already robbed them of their culture, language, and freedom to roam. Native Americans are still troubled by some of the highest rates of alcoholism, high-school dropouts, and preventable diseases in the nation. To alleviate their guilt, the government of the United States allows Native American nations to erect casinos and receive education and health benefits. At last, justice... as long as a tribe can gain recognition. You see, tribes still must be recognized by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Congress to receive these rights (really, a pittance to this government, which historically gained much more by its actions than it pays out in penance).

After centuries of racism and oppression at the hands of the white man, you'd think that there might be some solidarity amongst the tribes; however, the ongoing fight of the Lumbee Indians to receive recognition provides ample proof that this is not so. You've probably never heard of the Lumbee. Not many people outside of North Carolina have. You've heard of the Cherokee, the Sioux, the Algonquin, the Apache, the Seminole, the Cree, the Delaware, the Navajo, and a few others; however, you have never heard of the Lumbee, whose tribal rolls, numbering over 50,000, make them the largest tribe east of the Mississippi River.

The Lumbee, located primarily in the sun-baked southeastern region of North Carolina - or "Downeast" as Tarheel natives call it - are concentrated in Robeson County along the Lumber River, so named by the first English settlers in the United States (who named it so because they misunderstood the name of the tribe). They were among the first - and least hostile - tribes encountered by the English - remember, most of the east coast was named "Virginia" at the time. Many believe that the Lumbee were the subject of the drawings in DeVry's 1580 book about the "Virginia" colony, most of which were done on the Outer Banks and just inland, in what is now southeastern NC.

The Lumbee were friendly and accommodating. Most worked in the white man's villages and towns, partially assimilating long before we white folks gained such a stellar reputation for human rights appreciation. Because of this, and also because those who settled southeastern NC weren't land-obsessed (nobody in his right mind would fight over baked clay, swamps, and mudpits that regularly reach temperatures of over 100 between mid-May and early October, with humidity so high that you feel as though you've stepped into an armpit), the Lumbee escaped much of the indignity and cruelty suffered by tribes in other areas.

They didn't have to fight until the late nineteenth century, when people discovered that hog-farming and peach orchards did extremely well in that area. Their fight was also much shorter (but no less brutal) than other tribes, because by 1880, there were far too many white men for them to withstand, and they couldn't retreat to the west, because they were surrounded on all sides. Because of these factors, by the time the Lumbee were purged, they had already lost many of their customs and most of their language, and history has left them behind for more colorful tales involving the plains tribes and the Cherokee Trail of Tears.

For the better part of a century, the Lumbee have struggled to receive recognition from the federal government. This recognition would - as I noted above - bring millions of dollars in benefits for housing, education, and health, as well as open the door to casinos and gaming facilities to help provide for the tribe (southeastern NC, remember, is poor, poor, poor). This time, it isn't the white man who stands in the way of Lumbee prosperity. It is the Cherokee nation, who has suffered enough at the hands of the whites that one might think they would embrace their native cousins instead of opposing their recognition. US Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC), who sits on the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, notes that their situation isn't likely to change soon: "You have numerous tribes around the country, some with ties to the Eastern Band of the Cherokees, [opposing] this federal recognition." [story]

Why would the Cherokee block this? They claim that it is because the Lumbee have lost their heritage, because they don't have historical documentation proving their rights to the land - fairly convenient since the Lumbee, who were never targeted until they had lost much of their cultural heritage, didn't have to sign a treaty (which would have been broken anyway), as I noted in the brief history above - and that because of this, argues Chief Michell Hicks of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee, recognition would damage the "integrity" of all indian tribes.

Bullshit. The "integrity" argument is a lie: Walt Wolfram, one of the most distinguished sociolinguistics scholars in the nation, notes that the Lumbee have distinct linguistic patterns and lexical anomalies that occur nowhere else in the nation - that would be a dialect all their own. They have also recovered many of their traditions, mostly due to scholarly work done at UNC Pembroke (a historically Indian college).

The Cherokee oppose this because Lumbee recognition might steal some Cherokee thunder: the Lumbee tribal rolls are the largest in the Eastern US, and federal funding for Indian Affairs is tight (I wonder why?), and the Lumbee, because of their size, would receive a $77 million slice of that pie. It might also cut in on their action. Right now, if the twenty-million residents of the metropolitan areas of Raleigh, Charlotte, Greensboro, Wilmington, Richmond, or Knoxville want to gamble, they have to take a nice, long drive to the Cherokee casino, tucked away in the recesses of the Appalachian Mountains around Asheville, NC. The Lumbee are located along I-95, the most heavily traveled interstate in the nation, which would make them convenient for anyone travelling along the east coast.

Makes you wonder. Makes me sick.
currently on miPod - The Shins: "Caring is Creepy"

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank You! Our recognition is long overdue, but our pride as Indian people has never wavered. Kudos to you for presenting a 'fair & balanced' argument in our defense. Lumbee Rising!!!!!
A Proud Lumbee