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Concerns about casino competition could be behind resistance to recognition for Lumbees

Posted November 18, 2020 1:00 p.m. EST
Updated November 18, 2020 8:00 p.m. EST

— The Eastern Band of the Cherokees and other Native American groups are lobbying the U.S. Senate to block legislation that would give full federal recognition to the Lumbee tribe.

The U.S. House on Monday unanimously approved the Lumbee Recognition Act, which would allow members of the tribe to get federal education, health care and housing benefits provided to certain groups of Native Americans.

Richard Sneed, principle chief of the Cherokees, recently sent a letter to congressional leaders opposing the legislation, arguing that the Lumbees "have never been able to demonstrate any historical or genealogical tie to any historical tribe" and that the pending bill "would even prevent a serious review of the Lumbee claims that its current membership has Native American ancestry."

The Lumbee tribe has about 60,000 members across Robeson, Scotland, Hoke and Cumberland counties.

"The Lumbee should pursue federal recognition through the [Office of Federal Acknowledgment] administrative process at the Department of Interior, where experts and procedures are in place, and not through an Act of Congress," the letter, which also was signed by the tribal chief of the Mississippi Band of Choctaws and is backed by other tribes, states.

"We're used to it. Lumbee people have been fighting for recognition since 1888, and over the years, the Eastern American Cherokee have opposed it on numerous occasions," said Lawrence Locklear, adjunct associate professor in the Department of American Indian Studies at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke and a Lumbee historian.

Numerous previous efforts to obtain federal recognition of the tribe have died in Congress since the government gave the Lumbees partial recognition 64 years ago. North Carolina recognized the Lumbee tribe in 1885.

Sneed and the other tribal leaders argue that they shouldn't have to share hundreds of millions of dollars in federal aid with the Lumbees.

"With enormous need across Indian country related to the COVID-19 response, reacquisition of land, protection of natural resources and protection of Native women and children, federal swing-state politics has overwhelmed sound federal policy and the priorities of tribal governments with whom the United States has treaties and trust relations," the letter states.

President Donald Trump came out in support of the Lumbee Recognition Act last month and even held a campaign rally in Lumberton. He then carried Robeson County in the election.

Some Lumbees said the Cherokees are more interested in protecting their casino revenue than any federal funds. Full recognition could allow the Lumbees to build a casino on tribal lands off Interstate 95 in southeastern North Carolina.

"We're in a perfect location were we to decide to have a casino," Locklear said. "We're halfway between New York and Florida. It's perfect stop for driving between the two, so it would just make a perfect location. It's an hour and a half, an hour and 15 minutes from the coast, a couple of hours from the mountains, so a perfect midway point."

Harrah's Cherokee Casino Resort in the western North Carolina mountains generated about $400 million in revenue last year, and much of it was pumped back into the local economy through wages for its 4,000-plus employees and support for local schools and health care facilities.

The Cherokee also have lobbied against attempts by the Catawba tribe of South Carolina to build a casino in North Carolina near Charlotte.

"I think now we have that interest from both sides of the aisle, and I think we've got a great opportunity to get federally recognized," Locklear said.

Recognition through the administrative process could keep the Lumbees out of the gambling business, he added.

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