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‘Trump is hitting us really hard’: Biden campaign confronts last minute push for Native vote
Friday, October 23, 2020

With less than two weeks before the presidential election, Democrat Joe Biden and Republican Donald Trump continue to make major plays for the Native vote and their efforts are focused on an unexpected place.

American Indians and Alaska Natives represent just 1.6 percent of the population in North Carolina, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. But their votes are increasingly seen as vital by both campaigns as Biden and Trump head into the final stretch of this heated electoral cycle.

“We are going to get those 15 electoral votes to get Joe Biden elected,” Crystal Cavalier, who hails from the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation, said during a watch party hosted by Native supporters of the Democratic candidate before the final presidential debate on Thursday night.

North Carolina is home to 160,000 Native people, Cavalier noted, the largest such population east of the Mississippi River. Eight Indian nations are located within state borders, and a ninth finally began restoring its homelands there earlier this year.

As director of tribal engagement for Biden in North Carolina, Cavalier said the Democratic candidate’s team is “working daily to make sure we have our elders and youth registered” as the election quickly approaches. But she isn’t the only one taking stock of the Native vote.

Earlier this week, President Trump made news when he said that he supported federal recognition for the Lumbee Tribe, the largest Indian nation in North Carolina. His declaration marked the first time he has stated a position on the issue since taking control of the White House nearly four years ago.

“As you know, the Lumbee Tribe has been fighting for federal recognition for more than a century,” Trump said at a campaign rally in Gastonia on Wednesday.

Though Gastonia is almost 2 and half hours away from Lumbee headquarters in Pembroke, Trump’s shout out was significant. He noted that Rep. Dan Bishop (R-North Carolina), whose electoral victory in 2019 has been attributed to the power of the Native vote, also supports the tribe.

“When I am re-elected, we’ll work with Congress, and we’ll work with Dan, and we’ll work with all of them, on the Lumbee Recognition Act and we’ll get it done,” Trump said of the GOP Congressman, who attended the rally. “It’s about time.”

But the Lumbees weren’t the only ones whose presence was acknowledged by the president, who denounced Indigenous Peoples Day just a few days prior on the campaign trail. Trump also claimed citizens of the Catawba Nation were at the event, though he had trouble pronouncing the tribe’s name correctly.

“With us as well are members of the incredible Lumbee, Catawba tribes,” Trump said in a manner that suggested he wasn’t sure what he was reading off the teleprompter.

“Lumbee, Catawba, where are they?” he continued as he peered into the crowd. “Oh look at you guys, wow. That’s a good looking group of people.”

“Lumbee, Catawba,” Trump repeated, mispronouncing the latter tribe’s name for a third time.

Despite the stumbles, Trump’s call out to the Catawbas was significant as well. Though their headquarters are in neighboring North Carolina, the tribe’s efforts to restore its land base in South Carolina have drawn an unusual level of support from Republicans who had long ignored the issue.

Just two years ago, in fact, the Trump administration told the Catawba Nation it could not secure trust land in North Carolina. But after Republicans like Sen. Thom Tillis (R-North Carolina) got involved, the Department of the Interior changed course and approved the tribe’s fee-to-trust application for a site near Kings Mountain, only about 15 miles from the Gastonia Municipal Airport, where the rally took place on Wednesday evening.

“Thom’s a good guy,” Trump said of Tillis, who supports federal recognition for the Lumbee Tribe, in addition to backing the Catawba Nation. “Thom has been with us. He’s been working hard.”

“He’s really a good Senator. Really, a good Senator, and he’s been strong. So, I hope he gets in,” Trump said as Tillis deals with an unexpectedly difficult challenge from Democrat Cal Cunningham.

During the pre-debate gathering on Thursday night, Democrats characterized Trump’s efforts as last-minute entreaties to Native voters. Biden, for example, announced his support for the Lumbee Tribe more than two weeks ago. And he served as vice president when Barack Obama became the first sitting president to support the tribe’s federal recognition.

“We just have to say, Biden did it first,” Cavalier said of the message the Biden campaign will give in North Carolina.

Joe Biden Photo by Adam Schultz / Biden for President
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden listens to Chairman Terry Rambler of the San Carlos Apache Tribe at the Heard Museum in Phoenix, Arizona, on October 8, 2020. Photo by Adam Schultz / Biden for President

Clara Pratte, a citizen of the Navajo Nation who serves as the national tribal engagement director for Biden, noted that the Democratic candidate developed a comprehensive Indian Country platformupdated it earlier in October. Trump, in comparison, only released his plan on Tuesday and did it through his administration, not his campaign apparatus.

“We see right through it,” Pratte said. “Hello, you’ve been in that office for four years about, and now it looks like you care about Native people?”

“Nope, not gonna happen,” she concluded.

But in an election where every vote matters, Pratte said the Democratic campaign is taking the “11th-hour pandering” seriously. With Trump heading back to North Carolina on Saturday — for a rally in Robeson County, smack dab in Lumbee territory — the Biden team is prepared to keep working.

“Trump is hitting us really hard coming down here,” Cavalier said during the debate watch.

“That’s OK, though,” she added. “We’re gonna line the roads to the fairgrounds with Biden signs.”

Harvey Godwin, Jr. serves as chairman of the Lumbee Tribe. Photo: North Carolina Department of Transportation Communications

The Trump rally will feature Rep. Bishop, who is one of four Republican co-sponsors of H.R.1964, the Lumbee Recognition Act. The bill was approved by the House Committee on Natural Resources last month, meaning it could be passed by the Democratic-controlled U.S. House of Representatives at any time.

Similar recognition bills have been passed the House in prior sessions. But the tribe has never seen much success in the U.S. Senate, currently in the hands of Republicans.

During the termination era of federal policy, Congress enacted a bill that identified the Lumbees as “Indians.” But the law denied them all of the benefits associated with federal recognition.

The Lumbee Recognition Act repeals the 1956 law and ensures the tribe is eligible for federal services and programs meant for Indians. The tribe has about 55,000 people on its rolls.

“I am hopeful that the Lumbee bill will be on the president’s desk before the end of this year,” Chairman Harvey Godwin, Jr. said on Wednesday. The companion to H.R.1964 is S.1368, whose backers are two Republicans, one of whom is Sen. Tillis.

“It’s a good day to be Lumbee,” said Godwin, who also thanked Joe Biden for his support of the tribe.

Though the Lumbees can boast of high-level support from Republicans and Democrats alike, a major hurdle stands in their way. The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians — whose sovereign status has already been recognized by the United States, through an act of Congress, incidentally — described the focus on North Carolina as an “charade.”

“Tis the season when politicians of all stripes make desperate promises to get votes, but the pandering has reached new levels with the embrace of legislation to extend federal recognition to the Lumbee in North Carolina,” Chief Richard Sneed said in a statement on Thursday.

“The Lumbee have failed to attain federal acknowledgment as a tribe for over a century for good reason — they fail to meet the standards for federal recognition at every level,” Sneed asserted.

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