During my term as Executive Director of the National Congress of American Indians (1972-1978), the organization declined to recognize the Lumbees for membership as a tribe although many of them were card-carrying Indian members on an individual basis. Over the years several Lumbee people had served in important positions on the NCAI staff.
But, as I recall, the reason their membership was declined was that the NCAI Credentials Committee, whose responsibility it was to decide on membership, would not recognize their credentials as valid; i.e. a resolution from a governing body that could be considered a tribal government.
To be sure, there were others who questioned that the Lumbee tribe did not have a language of their own, that the name Lumbee was not an Indian word, and others who presented frankly racist objection to their designation as a tribe.
At the time, NCAI had some twenty-two non-federally recognized tribes in its membership, most of them from the Northwest, and a few from the Northeast. As NCAI Director, I was called upon to testify on behalf of one of our members, the Mashpee Wampanoag of Massachusetts, in a court case in Boston. I was greatly impressed at the length they went to in keeping their history alive, including family trees of members.
In 1978, during the BIA’s effort to establish criteria for federal recognition and restoration of trust status, NCAI convened a meeting in Nashville, Tennessee, to discuss the matter and make recommendations to the BIA. Non-recognized tribes, from the South and the Northwest particularly, were invited to the meeting, as well as representatives of interested federally-recognized tribes, including several leaders who were in outright opposition to the restoration of any tribes or groups.
We held the meeting in Nashville, not as an in-your-face gesture to the United South and Eastern Tribes, among which the greatest opposition to new restoration – especially the Lumbees – was the most pronounced. But we felt that they especially needed to hear from the delegations of the non-recognized groups. And the non-recognized groups needed a forum to discuss their situation and their desire for restoration, and their long struggle to preserve their heritage in the most difficult circumstances of abandonment, racism and rejection.
The meeting turned out to be a very warm gathering, and a position was drafted and adopted that satisfied both sides, and a new spirit of cooperation was felt from there on. Nevertheless, opposition to Lumbee recognition persisted.
It is time – long past time, I think – to welcome the Lumbee people into the community of federally- recognized tribes. Their struggle over many years, and their efforts to preserve their heritage is inspiring, and they should be rewarded and praised by Native Americans everywhere. Their tribe has given Indian Country leaders who have worked hard for the great causes of sovereignty and tribal self-determination, all the while being denied their due recognition as Indian people. They have worked hard, and fought for, and have earned what much of Indian Country takes for granted.
Charles E. Trimble is Oglala Lakota, born and raised on the Pine Ridge Indian
Reservation. He was principal founder of the American Indian Press Association
in 1970, and served as executive director of the National Congress of American
Indians from 1972-78. He is retired and lives in Omaha. He may be reached at
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