A drum group. Photo: Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina
The Obama administration has opened the door for the Lumbee Tribe to seek federal recognition through the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
For decades, the tribe has been told it could only seek clarification of its government-to-government relationship through Congress. But a legal opinion issued by the Department of the Interior shortly before Christmas changes all that.
"This opinion does not grant us full federal recognition but it does open up additional avenues for us to pursue our efforts," Chairman Harvey Godwin Jr., said in a statement last week.
In 1956, Congress passed a law that defined the Lumbees as "Indians." But, amid the backdrop of the termination era, during which the United States was terminating relations with tribes across the nation, it denied them the services and benefits associated with full federal recognition
Since then, the Lumbees have repeatedly asked Congress to rescind the law and restore them to full recognition. Similar bills have been enacted for at least two other tribes that were stuck in the same status.
But the effort has faltered even as most politicians in North Carolina have rallied to the cause. Fierce opposition has come from the federally-recognized Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, whose leaders have questioned the Lumbee Tribe's legitimacy.
Eastern Cherokee leaders have instead told Congress that the tribe should be allowed to pursue recognition through the Office of Federal Acknowledgment at the BIA. That avenue is now open to the Lumbees as a result of the opinion written by Interior Solicitor Hillary Tompkins.
"Because I find that neither the text of the Lumbee Act nor its legislative history precludes the Lumbee Indians from petitioning for Federal acknowledgment under the department's regulations, I conclude that they may avail themselves of the acknowledgment process," Tompkins wrote in the December 22 opinion.
The Lumbee Tribe's federal recognition efforts date to the late 1800s and some citizens are wary of approaching the BIA. The acknowledgment process typically takes years to complete and can be extremely costly.
"We've been through the BIA process twice. It's a trap," one tribal citizen wrote on Facebook after the tribe shared the legal opinion.
A group calling itself the "United Lumbee Nation of NC and America" petitioned for federal status but was denied in 1985.
Department of the Interior Solicitor Opinion:
Reconsideration of the Lumbee Act of 1956 (December 22, 2016)
It's time for the Lumbee Tribe to gain full recognition (09/09)
Tribe makes case for federal recognition at hearing in DC (9/8)
Tribe federal recognition bills in conflict on gaming rights (9/6)
Committee on Indian Affairs holds first hearing since break (9/6)
Committee on Indian Affairs schedules hearing on four bills (8/29)
of Lumbee Tribe concerned about use of HUD funding (04/22)
Tribe commemorates 58th anniversary of ouster of Ku Klux Klan (01/19)
of Lumbee Tribe pick newcomer Harvey Godwin as chair (11/20)
Senate measure extends federal recognition to
Lumbee Tribe (11/17)
Lumbee Tribe remains in long
quest to gain federal recognition (04/16)
Eastern Cherokees oppose
Lumbee Tribe federal recognition bill (01/12)
Leader of Lumbee Tribe not optimistic on federal
recognition bill (1/8)
Lumbee Tribe should include casino in bid for recognition (1/7)
Editorial: Lumbee Tribe's
road to recognition gets steeper (11/12)
Supporter of Lumbee Tribe's recognition loses
re-election bid (11/7)
Tribes in North Carolina back
Democrat Sen. Hagan in tight race (10/30)
Republican blames Sen. Reid
for holding Lumbee recognition bill (08/15)
Senate candidates support
federal recognition for Lumbee Tribe (06/25)