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Lumbees Continue Struggle For Federal Recognition

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ROBESON COUNTY, N.C. — Some Lumbee Indians hope a partial victory will lead to a lifelong dream. For the first time in decades, both Republican and Democratic leaders from North Carolina are supporting legislation to federally recognize the tribe.

Nowhere is the history of Lumbee Indians stronger than in Robeson County. Garth Locklear is a direct descendant of three of the first petitioners who sought federal recognition for the tribe in 1889. At 69, the struggle has continued throughout his life.

"My people have felt a spiritual rejection by the country they love and the country we fought and died for," he said.

UNC-Pembroke already recognizes Lumbee Indians at its Native American Museum. If the tribe receives federal recognition, they could receive millions of dollars for things like housing, education and health care.

The push is now coming from an unlikely source. In a largely Democratic county, they are getting help from newly elected Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole. Her first piece of legislation supports the recognition of Lumbees. Rep. Mike McIntyre followed in the House.

"For such a long time, Republican senators in North Carolina were not friendly to the cause. To have one now is an improvement, so we are hopeful," museum curator Stan Knick said.

However, there is still opposition. Some family groups worry the bill will pave the way for gambling as it has with the Cherokee tribe.

A Cherokee casino opened in western North Carolina in 1997. At the time, 25 percent of the tribe's members lived in poverty, but that number has dropped. Through casino profits, each of the tribe's 12,000 members makes about $6,000 a year.

Casinos have also made Indian tribes big political players. In 1990, tribes with gaming contributed a total of $1,700 to federal candidates and parties. Ten years later, that number jumped to $3 million.

Rep. Ronnie Sutton, D-Robeson, who is the state's only Lumbee lawmaker, said casinos are not the tribe's primary focus.

"There may be a casino in years to come, but that would come forth after recognition, and in my opinion, long after federal recognition," Sutton said.

Native Americans have also helped in the political fund-raising world. In 1997, American Indians gave 20 percent of political contributions to Republicans. Officials say that number is now closer to 40 percent.

In 1956, Congress did acknowledge Lumbees but withheld tribal privileges, such as federal funding.


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