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Occaneechi Indians Seek State Recognition

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RALEIGH — Their ancestors roamed these parts long before the arrival of most white settlers, but the Occaneechi band of the Saponi Nation is having a hard time finding its place in North Carolina's history books.

In order to be officially recognized, members must prove their tribe dates back at least 200 years. The Occaneechis say that won't be a problem.

The present day Occaneechis say poor record keeping has made it difficult to prove their case, but they still believe they have one. After eight years of squabbling with the N.C. Commission of Indian Affairs, a judge has taken up their appeal.

The tribe has gone to great lengths to reveal its past, but the state refuses to recognize it as an American Indian tribe. The Occaneechi-Saponi say they have lived in Alamance and Orange counties for over 200 years, a requirement to be sanctioned as an Indian tribe in North Carolina.

The state Commission of Indian Affairs disputes their claim.

"It's a matter of politics as far as I'm concerned," says John Blackfeather Jeffries, an Occaneechi representative. "It's simply clear that the Occaneechi band of the Saponi nation can relate to several tribes dating in this area the past 200 years."

Now the matter is before a judge, who traded her courtroom for the countryside, to gain first hand knowledge of the Occaneechi-Saponi.

Judge Doris Smith met with a lifelong member of the rural Pleasant Grove community where many Occaneechi-Saponi live. If she rules in their favor, the Occaneechi-Saponi will have a greater say in the state's Indian affairs, plus the chance to receive special rights and perhaps one day, federal subsidies.

"There are certain programs, federal and state programs which are accessible to those entities that are state recognized and we'd like to have access to the same programs and benefits that the others have," says Lawrence Dunmore, Occaneechi-Saponi leader.

There are six tribes that are recognized by North Carolina. The attorney for the state Commission of Indian Affairs wouldn't talk about the Occaneechi-Saponi case with WRAL on camera, but off camera he said the commission is not a bunch of "boogey men" or mean spirited people, noting it's made up of Indians themselves, who guard their power carefully.

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Len Besthoff, Reporter
Terry Cantrell, Photographer
MJ Ainsley, Web Editor

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