Denied Federal Recognition for a Century, Biden and Trump Promise Change for NC’s Lumbee Tribe

LUMBERTON, USA - OCTOBER 24: People attend President Trump's event on Saturday in NC. In the closing days fo the 2020 election, both Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden have been courting key votes from Lumbee residents of rural Robeson County. (Photo by Peter Zay/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

By Michael McElroy

October 29, 2020

In the furious final days of campaigning, Biden and Trump make their case in an economically struggling NC county that’s home to thousands of Lumbee. 

The Lumbee Tribe is tired of waiting.

Though one of the largest tribes east of the Mississippi, the Lumbees in North Carolina are not recognized as an official tribe by the federal government. As a result, the tribe for more than a century has been denied the sovereignty and federal resources that recognition would bring. 

And those resources are needed.

Most Lumbees live in Robeson County, where more than 24.5% of residents live in poverty, and generations of tribal leaders and advocates seeking recognition have faced federal half-measures and empty gestures in the US Congress. 

Then, suddenly, in the final weeks before the 2020 election, the Lumbees had everyone’s attention.

Early in October, Joe Biden said that if elected president he would support federal recognition for the Lumbee Tribe. Last week, Trump agreed. The support from both candidates, as well as their teams’ visits to the area, show that the tribe and its 55,000 members have emerged as a potentially crucial voting bloc that could decide both the presidency and control of the U.S. Senate. 

The vote is expected to be close in North Carolina, both for the presidency and for a US Senate seat, where Republican incumbent Thom Tillis is facing Democrat Cal Cunningham. Democrats need a net gain of four seats to win back control of the Senate. 

So Robeson is a swing county in a swing state, and the Lumbees are its biggest constituency. But, though they may be one tribe, the Lumbees are as complicated and diverse politically as any other demographic. Both candidates have clear support within the tribe. Biden has rolled out lists of key Lumbee endorsements since October, and at a Trump rally in the county on Saturday, the crowd was full of tribe members. 

Robeson County, which shares a border with South Carolina, voted for Barack Obama by wide margins in 2008 and 2012, but voted for Trump by four percentage points in 2016. Lumbee support propelled all three victories. While Democrats outnumber Republicans in the county by nearly 4 to 1, more than 20,000 registered voters are unaffiliated.

With recognition now on the table, the county is up for the taking. 

“What the Lumbee people have been subjected to is frankly and plainly injustice,” Heather Nakai, a Lumbee member, resident of Robeson County, and attorney working on the recognition issue, told Cardinal & Pine. “When you have been denied justice for as long as the Lumbee people have, it is somehow hard to articulate what it could, would, or should mean for your people.”

Local Politics

There are two Lumbee Recognition bills in Congress at the moment, one in the House sponsored by Representative G.K. Butterfield of North Carolina, a Democrat, and one in the Senate, backed by both NC Republican senators, Richard Burr, who has introduced a half-dozen versions of the bill since he was elected in 2005, and Tillis. Butterfield said in an interview with Cardinal & Pine that he is confident his bill will pass the House and that the Senate will have enough time to take it up before the current Congress ends on Jan. 3, if Mitch McConnell, who voted against Lumbee recognition in 1992, brings it to a vote.

Trump and Biden both say they would sign the final bill.

“When I am re-elected,” Trump told the crowd in Robeson County on Saturday, “I will proudly sign the Lumbee Recognition Act, which should have been signed a long time ago.”

The crowd, many waving red “Lumbees for Trump” signs, erupted with the sound of drums and cheers.

“That’s why I’m here,” he said.

Broad announcements of support for an issue 130 years old and arriving just a few weeks before Election Day, however, raise questions of intent and whether there is any indication that, this time, promises will be kept.

Heather McMillan Nakai left talks with former NC congressional candidate Dan McCready at Lumbee homecoming in Pembroke in July 2018 Lumbee support figures to loom large in the 2020 election with both Joe Biden and Donald Trump making overtures to the NC based tribe in recent days Getty Images

A Long Slog

From the beginning, the Lumbees’ struggle for recognition has entwined questions of identity, sovereignty, and economics.

Their lineage is complex: a mix of tribal, white, and Black ancestry. Their diversity, a point of pride among the tribe, did not fit into a white government’s narrow understanding of what it means to be Native American. 

The Lumbees first sought recognition in 1888, but were denied, according to a 1984 Department of Interior report, because of a “lack of adequate funds.” 

Though North Carolina formally recognized the tribe in 1911, several other national efforts failed in the early 1900s and again in the 1930s. Then, in 1956, the federal government offered a compromise. 

“The many Indians now living in Robeson and adjoining counties are descendents of that once large and prosperous tribe which occupied the lands along the Lumbee River at the time of the earliest white settlements” a US House Resolution said. The tribe, it went on to say, would “be known and designated as Lumbee Indians of North Carolina.”

But, the House added with no explanation or reasoning, that the Lumbee would be denied the resources given to other tribes.

For the next seventy years, and despite numerous bills that went nowhere in the House and the Senate, everything stayed the same.

Needed Resources

While Native Americans account for 2% of North Carolina’s coronavirus cases, they make up 36% of the cases in Robeson County, where the majority of the Lumbee Tribe lives, according to data from the NC Department of Health and Human Services. Native Americans account for more than 40% of the county’s population and  a third of its COVID-related deaths.

Then, there’s the disastrous effect the pandemic is having on a local economy that was struggling during the best of times. 

According to the most recent Census data, the median household income in Robeson is $33,679, compared to $52,413 elsewhere in North Carolina. The percentage of people without insurance is also much higher, as is the number of people without reliable internet in their homes, and the number without a high school or college degree.

Federal recognition would provide a path to a host of aid and resources to address these issues.

“There are so many things and so many concerns that could be addressed if we weren’t spending so much time and resources getting that very basic question cleaned up,” Nakai said of recognition.

The Lumbees would also not be the only beneficiaries, she said.

“Robeson has faced a number of severe environmental crises in the last few years,” she said, including Hurricanes Matthew and Florence. “Being a federally recognized tribe would open another pipeline to FEMA after those storms,” she said, “creating a more efficient response that would have benefited the whole community.” 

A Rush of Attention

Without North Carolina, there are few paths to victory for Trump.  The race is tight and far from over, but Trump could win Ohio, Arizona, Georgia, Florida, Pennsylvania, and Iowa and still lose the presidency if he fails to win North Carolina. 

Biden, Trump, and their surrogates have been to North Carolina several times over the last few weeks, and Robeson is clearly part of their calculations. 

But the candidates’ records on Native American issues extend beyond the Lumbees.

The Big Picture

As a US Senator, Biden supported several pieces of legislation held in wide regard by many Native American voters. He is quick to point this out in a detailed and comprehensive “Biden-Harris Plan for Tribal Nations” on the campaign’s website. 

In 1978, he supported a law that tightened the standards for the adoption of Native American children after studies showed that they were being removed from their homes at disproportionate rates. And, in “one of Biden’s earliest votes as a senator,” the plan says, he helped expand the services sovereign tribes can decide for themselves. And he was among the Senators voting for Lumbee recognition in the 1992 bill. (In a video on Wednesday, vice president nominee Kamala Harris reiterated Biden’s intent to sign a Lumbee Recognition Act.)

Then, of course, there was the Affordable Care Act, which bolstered the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, through which the insured rate among Native Americans rose more than 10 percentage points. Trump has blasted the ACA repeatedly and his administration is asking the US Supreme Court to rule the entire act unconstitutional, which some Native Americans see as abandoning the IHCIA specifically. 

The Biden-Harris plan also addresses broadband, infrastructure, education, economic development and sovereignty in detail. 

Trump, however, has not made any equivalently-detailed plan publicly available.

The Trump Administration has implemented or signed several policy initiatives relating to Native Americans, but a significant amount have come in 2020, in the heat of an election year. 

On Oct. 21, for example, the Senate passed and the president signed into law several bipartisan bills relating to tribal sovereignty and safety, including measures to strengthen negotiating and decision-making powers among tribes, to better track and monitor violent crimes against indigenous women, and to fund business incubators to promote Native-American owned small businesses. 

All of these measures apply only to federally recognized tribes. 


“The most important thing that any candidate can do is to respect the sovereignty of tribes, and our right to self determination,” Danielle McLean, a Lumbee Tribe attorney, said during an October virtual roundtable event held by the Biden campaign. “We know what is going on in Lumbee Country and we are in the best position to come up with the solutions to the issues facing our community.”

Despite the progress made in the Obama administration, the tribe’s vote could go either way. After all, in none of the eight years that Biden was vice president did he make a strong public push for any version of the Lumbee Recognition Act.

So why now?

When asked this question directly, the Biden campaign issued a statement from L.T. McCrimmon, the campaign’s state director of North Carolina saying that “Joe Biden has supported federal recognition for the Lumbee tribe for nearly 30 years.” (A Biden official later pointed to Biden’s 1992 Senate vote as evidence.)

The tribe, the statement continued, “deserves equal access to health care, COVID-19 relief, and economic opportunity, and full federal recognition is a much-needed step in the right direction.”

(Messages to The Lumbee Tribal Chair Harvey Godwin Jr., several members of the Tribal Council, and Senator Burr’s office were not returned.) 

The Home Stretch

Nakai is one of the many Lumbees supporting Biden, but she is also one of the 20,000 voters in Robeson listed as unaffiliated. 

“We may have varying voting priorities,” she said, but “at our very core, we hold up very similar backgrounds and systems of beliefs, which always influences people of faith.” 

It comes down to, as the Post said in a separate profile of Nakai in 2018: Who gets to decide “what makes someone Native American?”

Over the last 130 years, Nakai told Cardinal & Pine, the Lumbee were never really part of the conversation. Others were telling them what it meant to be Lumbee, and what they were and were not entitled to. It was, Nakai said, “a narrative that we weren’t participating in.”

Whatever comes of recognition and whoever they vote for, Lumbee voters are clearly retaking control of their narrative: With less than a week to go, nearly 30% of the Robeson County’s registered voters have already cast their ballots.


  • Michael McElroy

    Michael McElroy is Cardinal & Pine's political correspondent. He is an adjunct instructor at UNC-Chapel Hill's Hussman School of Journalism and Media, and a former editor at The New York Times.

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