Lumbee Tribe sends chairman to DC to make push for federal recognition
The leader of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina is taking a more prominent role in lobbying for federal recognition after a setback over the summer raised doubts about the effort

Chairman Purnell Swett arrived in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday to make a big push for the tribe's bill. The House already passed the measure and all that's needed now is action in the Senate.

"This is probably the closest we've come in some time," Swett said in an interview on Capitol Hill.

Swett was eager to put controversy behind him as he prepared for meetings with key lawmakers. in June, the tribe killed a lobbying contract amid concerns that a Nevada firm was going to make gaming an issue even though the bill that passed the House includes a prohibition on gaming.

"Automatically, everyone assumed there was going to be gaming in the bill," Swett said in regard to the old deal. But he said the tribe and its new lobbying firm -- the Indian-owned AndersonTuell -- are committed to leaving the gaming prohibition in place.

"The bill that passed the House has no gaming in it," Swett said. The tribe wants the same bill to pass the Senate, he added.

The media scrutiny in North Carolina prompted Swett to take a greater role in the tribe's lobbying effort. He started rallying tribal members and so far they have raised $180,000 to help him push for the bill in Washington. The money will also pay for AndersonTuell's services.

"People are pulling together and working together," he said.

The House passed H.R.31 last June with broad support. The Senate Indian Affairs Committee has approved S.1735, its version of the bill, but no vote has been scheduled so far.

Swett plans to use his meetings on the Hill to address concerns about the tribe's efforts. He said the main obstacles are the impact of recognition on federal funding for other tribes, the size of the Lumbee's 50,000-plus membership and opposition from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, the only recognized tribe in North Carolina.

"Our tribe doesn't have deep pockets like they have," Swett said of the Eastern Cherokees, whose political savvy has resulted in legislative victories for them. "What we have is numbers across the country."

The Eastern Band is supporting H.R.839, a bill that would require the Lumbees to go through the Bureau of Indian Affairs for recognition. The Cherokees say the Lumbees need to prove their Indian identity before they can be accepted as a legitimate tribe.

"The cultural and political integrity of the Eastern Band and other tribes with living tribal languages and long standing government-to-government relations with the United States is undermined when Congress acts arbitrarily in federal acknowledgement matters, allowing politics and emotion to drive decision making, rather than facts about tribal identity," Chief Michell Hicks said in testimony in 2007.

"Eastern Cherokee leaders have raised these identity concerns about the Lumbee since at least 1910, when the Lumbees first claimed a Cherokee identity," added Hicks, who was not invited to testify on the current version of the Lumbee bill.

Swett pointed to studies as far back as the late 1800s that show the Lumbees are legitimate. And in 1956, during the height of the termination era, Congress passed a law that identified them as "Indians" but denied them federal services and benefits.

The Eastern Band also gained recognition through legislative means, Swett noted. "If it's good enough for them to go through, it's good enough for us," he said.

Members of Congress returned to work this week but the November elections and other high-profile issues won't leave much time for Indian bills like the Lumbee one. Swett remains hopeful that the tribe will get an answer by the end of this year.

"We've got a short window," Swett said. "We're not giving up."

Lumbee Recognition Bills:
S.1735 | H.R.31 | H.R.839

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