North Carolina has the second largest American Indian population east of the Mississippi River—and the seventh largest in the country.
Did you know that North Carolina has the second largest American Indian population east of the Mississippi River?
According to the 2020 Census, there are just over 130,000 Native Americans living in North Carolina. We have eight state recognized tribes—including the Eastern Band of Cherokee, which is North Carolina’s only federally recognized tribe.
They were not, however, the only Native peoples to live here. Some of those peoples and their languages were driven from existence by colonial expansion. Sometimes, they integrated with other tribes, and their descendants live on in modern tribes. Here’s a listing of the peoples who have and continue to live in North Carolina.
[Editor’s note: Cardinal & Pine recognizes colonial aggression has made some information about numerous Native peoples difficult or impossible to obtain. If we’ve missed anything, let us know.]
With November being Native American Heritage Month in America, now’s as good a time as any to learn a bit about each. For more on NC’s Native peoples, check out NC’s Commission of Indian Affairs.
Eastern Band of Cherokee
📍Western North Carolina, including the Qualla Boundary
Federally recognized in 1868
The Cherokee Nation’s ancestral lands are located over several southeastern states, including North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, and parts of Alabama. The US government forcefully removed many Cherokee people from the land in the late 1830s via the Trail of Tears.
While many descendants of the Cherokee Nation are now in Oklahoma, there are about 14,000 members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians here in North Carolina. The Qualla Boundary, located near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, has been their home since the 1800s.
The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians were recognized by the federal government in 1868, and are a sovereign nation here in the US.
Coharie Indian Tribe
📍Sampson and Harnett Counties
Recognized by NC in 1971
Descended from the Neusiok Indians of the lower Neuse River, the modern day Coharie Indian Tribe primarily resides in Sampson and Harnett counties. There are currently over 3,000 enrolled members of the Coharie Indian Tribe, and four main settlements: New Bethel, Holly Grove, Shiloh, and Antioch.
Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina
Recognized by NC 1885
The Lumbee Tribe, also known as the People of the Dark Water, are known for their focus on education as the founders of Pembroke Normal School, which today is known as University of North Carolina at Pembroke.
They are the largest tribe in North Carolina, with 55,000 enrolled members who primarily reside in Robeson, Hoke, Cumberland, and Scotland counties. They are the largest tribe east of the Mississippi River, and the ninth largest in the nation. While they were recognized by the state of North Carolina in 1885, they have been petitioning for federal recognition since 1888.
📍Halifax and Warren Counties
Recognized by NC in 1965
One of the three North Carolina tribes tracing their ancestry to the Saponi people, the Haliwa-Saponi draw the prefix “Haliwa” from their ancestral lands of what is now Halifax, NC and Warren counties. There are over 4,000 enrolled members of the tribe throughout the world, but most members live near the Tribal Center in Hollister, NC.
Recognized by NC in 1911
Within the borders of both North Carolina and Virginia, the Sappony have lived in what is now Person County, NC and Halifax County, VA since the early 1700s. The Sappony were officially recognized by North Carolina in 1911, and changed their name from the “Indians of Person County” to Sappony in 2003. There are currently around 850 enrolled members.
Meherrin Indian Tribe
Recognized by NC in 1986
Anchored in Iroquois tradition, the Meherrin are particularly focused on preserving their culture and revitalizing their language. Many of the 900 enrolled members reside in Hertford, Bertie, North Hampton, and Gates counties.
Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation
Recognized by NC in 2001
Close to the historical Great Trading Path used by both native and non-native people, the Occaneechi descend from the Saponi Indians and other Sioux-speaking indigenous groups. The Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation officially won state recognition in 2001 after being denied it twice before.
They are the smallest tribe in North Carolina, with 700 enrolled members. According to their website, their vision is to be a “unified and self-reliant tribe.”
📍Columbus and Bladen Counties
Recognized by NC in 1971
The Waccamaw-Siouan Indians are also known as the People of the Falling Star. According to them Lake Waccamaw was formed when a meteorite fell near the Green Swamp, and water from the surrounding area flowed in to form the lake.
The majority of the almost 1,900 members of the Waccamaw-Siouan Indian Tribe live in Bladen and Columbus counties.
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