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The Rise of Tribes and the Fall of Federal Indian Law
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Lumbee Tribe makes case for federal recognition
Thursday, September 18, 2003

In the face of an impending hurricane, members of the Lumbee Tribe packed a Senate hearing on Wednesday as their supporters urged Congress to right a century-old wrong.

Backed by political heavyweights like Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.), a former Cabinet official, Lumbee advocates made the case for full recognition of the largest tribe east of the Mississippi. The tribe has been waiting for an answer since 1888, when 45 Lumbee ancestors came to Washington, D.C., to petition for federal status.

The Lumbees now number more than 50,000, the overwhelming majority of whom live in southeastern North Carolina. But they are stuck in political limbo, due to a unique termination-era law passed in 1956 that denied them access to all the benefits and privileges afforded to other Indians.

"I don't want my grandchildren coming up here 100 years from now and saying their granddad talked about this," chairman Milton Hunt told the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs."It's time that federal recognition for Lumbees came to pass."

Dole and Rep. Mike McIntyre (D), whose district includes the Lumbee's traditional territory, have introduced bills to recognize the tribe. In their testimony, both said the Lumbee's legitimacy has already been confirmed by the federal government in numerous reports dating to the early 1900s.

But a rival bill, introduced by Rep. Charles Taylor (R-N.C.), whose district represents the Eastern Band of Cherokees, would require the tribe to go through the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which has a regulatory process for determining who deserves federal status. Dole said this would create a further, unacceptable delay because of the backlog of recognition petitions before the agency.

"The Lumbees have already waited far too long," Dole testified. "It's been over one hundred years. Let's not make them wait another fifteen years."

Dole's bill doesn't have any co-sponsors but Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), vice-chairman of the Indian panel, said he supports recognition for the tribe. McIntyre's version has 225 co-sponsors.

"It's time for discrimination to end and recognition to begin," McIntyre said.

The Bush administration was represented by Aurene Martin, the principal deputy assistant secretary at the BIA. She did not outright voice any objections to recognition for the tribe.

But she said it would take several years for the BIA to verify the tribe's large membership. She also was worried that the bill, which designates the tribe's service area and grants civil and criminal jurisdiction to the state, could lead to problems in the future when the tribe exercises its sovereign rights.

Jack Campisi, a researcher who has worked in Lumbee communities for 20 years, said the tribe's case was "compelling." Of the seven mandatory criteria for recognition that the BIA uses, he said the Lumbees meet six, including political and historical continuity. The tribe can't meet the seventh because of the 1956 termination law.

Arlinda Locklear, a tribal member who was the first Native woman to argue before the Supreme Court, responded to a number of concerns raised by Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.), chairman of committee, and by others. She singled out the Department of Interior as the tribe's main roadblock to full recognition.

"I dare say that this tribe would be recognized today had it not been for the department's long-standing opposition to recognition," she told the committee, when asked whether going through the BIA's process would be acceptable. She said the language in the 1956 law was the result of the Interior's lobbying to Congress.

Locklear also said Martin's estimate that the Lumbees would consume 15 to 20 percent of the BIA's existing budget was a "gross exaggeration." The tribe participates in federal housing progress by virtue of its state recognition and wouldn't need many of the BIA's services, she said.

Opposition to the Lumbee bill came from the United South and Eastern Tribes (USET), a organization of 24 federally recognized tribes, including the Eastern Cherokees. Executive director Tim Martin, a member of a tribe that was recognized by the BIA, said the Lumbees should be required to follow that path.

USET has traditionally opposed legislative recognition, Martin added. But he conceded that a number of USET's members were acknowledged by Congress, a fact that was pointed out more than once by Campbell.

Although Campbell said that Congress has to do something to break the "brick wall" facing the Lumbees, he didn't say whether he would support Dole's bill or back a Senate version of Taylor's.

Many Lumbees who attended the hearing felt it went very well. Their strategy is to get the Senate to act on the bill first and then move onto the House.

Tribal members were eager to return home due to Hurricane Isabel, which has forced the federal and district governments in Washington to shut down. Isabel is projected to hit the North Carolina coast this morning.

Relevant Documents:
Testimony, Witness List (September 17, 2003)

Get Lumbee Bills:
Dole: S.420 | McIntyre: H.R.898 | Taylor: H.R.1408

Relevant Links:
Official Lumbee Tribe website - http://www.lumbeetribe.com
Lumbee Regional Development Association - http://www.lumbee.org

Related Stories:
Lumbee delegation pushing for federal recognition (9/15)
Senate panel to hold hearing on Lumbee recognition (09/04)
School board supports recognition of Lumbee Tribe (08/12)
Senate panel to hold hearing on Lumbee recognition (8/4)
Lumbee Tribe hopes for resolution of status (3/19)
Lumbee tribal members debate extent of territory (3/7)
Opinion: Approve recognition of Lumbee Tribe (2/27)
Group says Lumbee recognition means casino (2/26)
Sen. Dole backs Lumbee recognition bill (02/19)
Lumbee Tribe seeks support fot federal status (2/18)
Lumbee recognition bill to be delayed (01/09)
Lumbee Tribe hopes for recognition (11/27)

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