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Federal Recognition
Lumbees clash with Cherokee at Senate hearing

The Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina made yet another plea for federal recognition on Wednesday but faced opposition from the powerful Cherokee lobby.

After more than a century of petitioning for full status, the Lumbees are in legal limbo due to a special act of Congress passed during the termination era. The 1956 law identified the Lumbees as Indians but denied them treatment as a federally recognized tribe.

"In 1956, Congress finally did pass an act for the Lumbees, but he gave with one hand and took with the other hand," Lumbee Chairman Jimmy Goins told the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, recounting attempts as far back as 1888 to gain recognition.

S.660, the Lumbee Recognition Act, would repeal the part of the 1956 that effectively terminated the tribe. The bill is sponsored by North Carolina's two senators, both of whom appeared at the hearing yesterday to support the Lumbees.

"Their legitimacy has been established time and time again," Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R) testified.

But significant opposition to the bill comes from some of the most politically active and prominent tribes in the country. The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, North Carolina's sole recognized tribe, the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians, also from Oklahoma, are fighting the measure.

Along with the United South and Eastern Tribes, the Cherokees say the Lumbees should go through the federal recognition process established by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The Cherokees support a rival measure, H.R.4171, that would clear the way for the BIA to review a petition the Lumbees filed in 1980.

"The question we ask is whether the Lumbees want to avoid the administrative process because it is unfair, or because they know it will truly examine the factual issues about Lumbee tribal identity," said Eastern Cherokee Chief Michell Hicks.

Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), the chairman of the committee, opposes legislative recognition as a general policy. But he pointed out that the Lumbee act was passed during the termination era, "a time when many of our Indian tribes were not treated fairly."

In questioning Hicks, McCain also noted that the Eastern Band gained recognition through an act of Congress. Several members of USET, including some of the most wealthiest in the nation, were recognized by legislative means as well.

Sen. Richard Burr (R), a member of the committee and a co-sponsor of S.660, carefully treaded on the inter-tribal dispute when he questioned R. Lee Fleming, the head of the BIA's Office of Federal Acknowledgment. Fleming responded that he is a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma.

Fleming's testimony on S.660 essentially supported the Cherokee view that the Lumbees should go through the BIA process. "At a minimum, Congress should amend the 1956 act to afford the Lumbee Indians the opportunity to petition for tribal status," he told the committee.

But even though the Lumbee petition was submitted in 1980, the tribe will have to wait a decade, if not longer, for an answer, Fleming said. Several other groups are ahead of the Lumbees and are given priority in the BIA's process.

The Lumbees, with about 53,000 members, outnumber the 10,000-member Eastern Cherokee Band, and though the Lumbees have the support of the state's two senators, the Eastern Cherokees are well connected. Their Congressman is Rep. Charles Taylor (R), the sponsor of H.R.4171 and the chairman of the House Interior Appropriations subcommittee, which handles funding for all Indian programs.

In his testimony, Hicks raised the funding issue and said Lumbee recognition would draw funds away from other tribes.

Flush with gaming revenues, the Eastern Cherokee are a major political and economic powerhouse in their region. Combined with the Cherokee Nation, the second-largest tribe in the nation and another big political player, the Cherokee lobby represents a huge force that poses big hurdles for the Lumbees.

The Cherokee influence was evident at a House Resources Committee hearing in April 2004, when several members, Democrat and Republican, were unwilling to back Lumbee recognition even though some had done so in the past. The Eastern Cherokees have increased their lobbying efforts in recent years and have scored several legislative coups.

But with the help of the Arlinda Locklear, a tribal member and attorney who used to work for Patton Boggs, the number one lobby firm in Washington, the Lumbees have won converts as well. One of those is Burr, who now supports Lumbee recognition even though he had signed onto a previous version of Taylor's BIA process bill when he served in the House.

Hearing Info:
LEGISLATIVE HEARING on S. 660, the Lumbee Recognition Act (July 12, 2006)

Lumbee Recognition Bills:
S.660 | H.R.21 | H.R.4171