Tribes’ Plight Splits N.C. GOP

Posted April 16, 2004 at 5:39pm

More than a century of backbiting and tension between two North Carolina American Indian tribes has spilled over into the state’s Congressional delegation, with allegations flying over dirty tricks, greed for federal dollars and the dangers of gambling.

At issue is the fate of roughly 53,000 people, primarily in Robeson County, N.C., who have been trying since 1888 to get the U.S. government to grant them status as an Indian tribe eligible for federal education and health care benefits — and potentially a lucrative Indian gaming license.

The group, known as the Lumbee, would represent the largest tribe on the East Coast if recognized by the federal government, but their entreaties have thus far been rejected at virtually every turn.

Their primary opponents in seeking recognition have been the 12,000-strong Eastern Band of Cherokee, already a federally recognized tribe.

Residing on opposite ends of the state, the Cherokee and Lumbee have set their respective Members of Congress against each other over the years, and historically the Cherokee have been more successful in blocking Congressional efforts to officially recognize the Lumbees.

But with the election of Republican Elizabeth Dole to the Senate in 2002, the Lumbees cleared one of the biggest obstacles facing them — the presence of former Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), who vigorously opposed Lumbee recognition, a position some alleged came in return for the support of Cherokees.

“It’s a fairness issue,” said Dole of her support for the Lumbees. “I’m going to do everything in my power to make it happen.”

Indeed, Dole’s first act as a Senator was to introduce the “Lumbee Recognition Act,” which the Senate Indian Affairs Committee approved last October.

And if Lumbee supporter Rep. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) is elected to the Senate this fall, the Lumbees will have another powerful Republican ally in the chamber.

Similarly, Rep. Mike McIntyre (D-N.C.), who represents Robeson County, has 235 co-sponsors for identical legislation, on which the House Resources Committee held a hearing two weeks ago.

But that may be where the good news stops for the Lumbees.

While the Cherokee say they have consistently opposed recognition of the Lumbees based on what they say is sketchy information about their American Indian roots, some lawmakers have been swayed in recent years by the argument that recognition of the Lumbees would eventually lead to a gambling mecca on the heavily traveled Interstate 95 in North Carolina, near which most of the Lumbees live.

And conservatives in North Carolina have warned both Dole and Burr that their support for the Lumbees could cost them at the ballot box.

Bill Brooks, president of the anti-gaming North Carolina Family Policy Council, issued a veiled threat to Dole, saying others who supported the Lumbees did not always win re-election.

“The only other Republican I know of in the past who supported the bill was Lauch Faircloth, and he wasn’t returned” to Congress, Brooks said.

Faircloth served one term before being ousted by Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) in 1998. (Edwards also supports Lumbee recognition, but is not running for re-election this year.)

Brooks went on to criticize Lumbee supporters as little more than gambling backers.

“It runs contrary to the principles of most Republicans in the South,” he said. “What we do know is that gambling hurts society and the individual families of addicted gamblers.”

But Dole said she opposes any additional gambling sites in North Carolina.

“My bill has absolutely nothing to do with gaming,” she said. “The issue of gaming is being used to derail this bill.”

McIntyre added that the Lumbees are primarily Christians and would be unlikely to pursue gambling.

“It would be a battle royale within the tribe,” predicted McIntyre.

Fellow Republican Rep. Walter Jones Jr. (N.C.) said Burr, if he wants to win his Senate contest against Democrat and Lumbee supporter Erskine Bowles, would be wise to abandon the Lumbees as well.

“I do think it will hurt Congressman Burr with conservatives in eastern North Carolina,” said Jones, who represents that part of the state. “Whatever [votes] he would pick up in Robeson County, he would lose two to three times that in other parts of North Carolina.”

Burr, however, denied that he was supporting the Lumbees because of their potential vote-getting power.

“Anybody that knows me, knows I’m not motivated by the next election cycle,” he said. Burr also said he opposed expanding gaming in North Carolina.

But Jones said it would be difficult, once the Lumbees were recognized, to prevent them from opening a casino along the I-95 corridor.

“It would become the Las Vegas of the East,” he charged. “I’m a conservative. I’m very strong in my faith, and I believe very strongly that gambling is wrong.”

However, Jones’ critics, who asked to remain anonymous, point out that he may in fact be trying to protect a Cherokee casino that already exists in the southwestern corner of the state.

Jones has so far accepted $7,000 in contributions during the 2003-2004 election cycle from casino and gambling interests, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Jones also received $1,750 from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in 1999, according to Federal Election Commission reports.

Indeed, the Cherokee have proven adept at blocking federal recognition of the Lumbees, as evidenced by the allegations of collaboration with Helms and other North Carolina lawmakers.

Chief Michell Hicks of the Eastern Band of Cherokee said he did not know whether any deal was made with Helms upon his election in 1972, as two sources alleged.

“I have no idea if that conversation ever took place,” said Hicks. “I’m not aware of any collusion, but Helms recognized the lack of consistency in [the Lumbee] argument and saw that there was an identity question here.”

Lumbees charge that the Cherokee have used a variety of questionable tactics over the years to shut them out.

For example, Arlinda Locklear, the Lumbees’ tribal attorney, charged Cherokee members paid line holders $10 an hour at the recent House Resources Committee hearing in an effort to keep Lumbee participants from getting into the room. Locklear said she learned of the efforts by talking to the people being paid to hold places in line.

When Dole and McIntyre found out about the attempted shutout, according to a Congressional aide at the hearing, the two gave up their seats so a few elderly Lumbee could sit inside the room.

The Cherokee’s muscle on the issue has also been aided by substantial support from other federally recognized tribes, including the Western Band of Cherokee in Oklahoma, the Apache and the Navajo.

“This is a national issue that affects every federally recognized tribe,” Hicks said.

Hicks said the Lumbees’ history is muddled despite their consistent attempts to get federal recognition. They have at various times during the past hundred years sought recognition as the Algonquins , Iroquois, Cherokees and the Sioux have. The Lumbee name, he pointed out, is not a historically recognized tribal name.

“The Chief is referring to names imposed upon the Tribe by the State of North Carolina in its various statutes recognizing the Tribe,” said Locklear via e-mail. “The only name ever adopted by the Tribe itself is the Lumbee name — done in 1952 following a referendum among tribal members.”

But Hicks said the questions about Lumbee heritage should give Congress pause, considering that approving a new group as large as the Lumbees could siphon away precious Bureau of Indian Affairs monies from the 562 other federally recognized tribes.

Meanwhile, the Eastern Band of Cherokees, Jones and Rep. Charles Taylor (R-N.C.) are pushing a bill that would allow the Lumbees to go through BIA’s formal recognition process, which they have been prohibited from doing since 1956.

That process could take another 15 to 30 years, say Lumbee supporters.

“I think they deserve better than a 15-year process,” Burr said.