First Posted: 1/15/2009
What federal recognition for the Lumbee Indians would mean for Robeson County depends on whom you talk to.
Ask some Lumbee leaders and they ascribe it the same aura a child does to Christmas. To them, federal recognition is the gift that keeps giving -- namely millions of dollars every year in government services, including health care, housing and college aid.
To many in the business community, recognition equals sovereign and tax-free land that could serve to hook new industries and jobs.
Others see recognition as a Pandora's box that, once opened, might not be so easily controlled or closed again. They point specifically to problems that could arise if recognition brings a casino to the county.
North Carolina first recognized the tribe in 1885, but it wasn't until 1953 that the state recognized the tribe under the Lumbee name. In 1956, Congress passed the Lumbee Act, which recognized the Lumbees but withheld the benefits and privileges that other federally recognized tribes receive.
Since 1988, the Lumbee Bill has been introduced in Congress five times. It has passed the House of Representatives twice but stalled in the Senate, with opponent. The last recorded roll vote on the bill was February 1992. It was rejected in the Senate 58 to 39.
That could change. Helms' successor, GOP Sen. Elizabeth Dole, recently introduced as her first piece of legislation the Lumbee Acknowledgment Act, would recognize Robeson County as “the reservation of the tribe for the purpose of any federal law applicable to the tribe,” and says, “The tribe is entitled to full federal acknowledgment and the programs, services and benefits that accompany that status.”
Rep. Mike McIntyre, a Lumberton Democrat, introduced a similar bill in the House Tuesday.
“We're very excited,” said Arlinda Locklear, a lawyer who has worked on recognition since 1988. “Recognition is looking better than it ever has, with the bipartisan support it has gotten. We feel it may happen this time.”
Tribal Chief Milton Hunt says recognition will still take a strong lobbying effort. He said he does not expect any action on the bill until the end of the year or early 2004.
“If the bill is voted on this year, I would be surprised,” Hunt said. “We're going to have to do a whole lot of handshaking up there (in Congress) to let them know who we are.”
McIntyre says that both bills ask the U.S. government to recognize Lumbees as Indians and to provide Lumbees with the same benefits that other federally recognized tribes in the country receive.
Lumbees would still be eligible to receive other welfare benefits such as food stamps, Medicaid, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Supplemental Security Income and federal housing programs, according to the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
McIntyre said that recognition could mean between $90 million and $120 million a year to the Lumbees. Now that the bills have been introduced, McIntyre says the Congressional Budget Office is expected to provide a more definitive estimate.
In 1992, the budget office estimated that federal recognition for the Lumbees would cost about $2,000 to $2,500 per tribal member -- less than the national average of $3,500, since the Lumbee are state-recognized and are already receiving some federal benefits.
As it now stands, the Lumbees would have to share the money budgeted for all of the tribes in the bureau's Eastern Office, which includes North Carolina, South Carolina, Mississippi, Louisiana and the New England states. But McIntyre said that he will try to get the appropriation for the entire service area increased so other tribes will not lose services.
Benefits could vary
Locklear says it's too early to try to put a dollar figure on the benefits tribal members might receive. She said tribes in the Eastern Office differ widely in the services they get. For example, she said, Lumbees would not need federal help for the upkeep of reservation roads or law enforcement because they don't live on a reservation.
“That is why it is hard to give a cookie-cutter answer how the area will be affected,” she said.
The tribe currently receives services from three federal programs: housing assistance, low-income heating aid and limited college tuition assistance. McIntyre said federal recognition would add medical care through the Indian Health Services. The agency has programs that specialize in maternal and child health, substance abuse, home health care and nutrition.
Other potential services include emergency and disaster assistance, which includes burial money for indigents, Indian child welfare grants, housing-improvement money and adult care for those unable to care for themselves. Most of these services are based on need, according to the BIA.
But because the federal agencies that serve recognized tribes restrict services to tribal members living on or near a reservation, the tribe must establish a service area that is treated like a reservation, according to Dole's bill. Lumbee leaders plan to buy land to be set aside in trust as sovereign land.
“If the tribe is federally recognized, those services it currently receives would be greatly expanded,” McIntyre said. “Right now, the tribe has to apply for those services and they may or may not get approved. With recognition, the services would be guaranteed.”
Tribal council member Jimmy Goins describes federal recognition in positive, if not glowing, terms. He breaks out in a smile as he talks about what recognition could mean. Goins said the help that tribal members would receive from Indian Health Services would greatly reduce the burden on such county programs as Medicaid.
“Federal recognition will change the face of Robeson County,” said Goins, chairman of the Tribal Council's recognition committee. “When you think of the money it will pump into the county in terms of services and aid, and the money it will free up for other things, you realize how important it is.”
The Bureau of Indian Affairs provides federal services to about 1.5 million American Indians and Alaska natives who are members of more than 562 federally recognized tribes in the U.S.
Goins says that recognition would change the county in other ways. He said sovereign land could be used as an incentive to new industries that could build plants on the land without having to pay property taxes.
But that land could also be used for casino gambling, similar to what the Eastern Band of Cherokee instituted on its reservation several years ago under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.
Chief Hunt said that Lumbee leaders consider gaming on Indian land a non-issue.
“There has absolutely been no talk of that,” Hunt said. “Our focus is getting recognized, and that is all.”
Arlinda Locklear said casino gaming has never been a motive for recognition.
“Indian gaming is a recent phenomenon,” she said. “It was approved in 1988, 100 years after our tribe first applied for recognition. Our effort is wholly unrelated to gaming.”
Even if tribal leaders wanted a casino, they would have to go through the proper channels to create one, says tribal Administrator Ruth Locklear. The Lumbee Constitution requires that the tribe first hold a referendum on the issue. If it were approved, the tribe would have to buy land and the federal government would have to accept that land into trust. The governor of North Carolina could still veto the idea.
Goins says he doubts that most tribal members would support the establishment of a casino.
“I don't see it happening, at least not in my lifetime,” he said. “This is the Bible Belt and most of the council and the tribe would be opposed to it.”
But because the tribe stands to gain millions from gaming, Lumbees might vote with their pocketbooks.
North Carolina's only casino, which opened in 1994, is on Cherokee land in the western part of the state. The Harrah's Cherokee Casino employs 1,500 people and tribal profits have bought garbage trucks, built a new reservation library and hired firefighters.
In 2001, each of the tribe's 12,500 members received $5,700 from it profits.
Ted Arrington, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, said that, if the Lumbees do get federal recognition, chances are that the lure of millions of dollars from a casino on Interstate 95 would be hard to resist. It would be the only casino on Interstate 95 between New Jersey and Florida.
“Of course, they're going to do it,” Arrington said.
State Rep. Ron Sutton said that gaming is a venture the tribe could support. But, he said, that would be “putting the cart before the horse.”
“If gambling comes down the pike, that's icing on the cake,” Sutton said. “We have insisted that if we get recognition, we have all the rights and privileges of all the other federally recognized tribes. If gambling is a right … then that would be a right that we would have.”
According to the Dole bill, the Lumbees would not lose their right to vote or hold public office in North Carolina. Nothing in the bill “affects the ownership status of any land within the state or the status of any right,” it says.
Under the bill, “the state would exercise jurisdiction over all criminal offenses that are committed on and all civil actions that arise on land located in the state that is owned by or held in trust for the benefit of the tribe.”
“Lumbees will continue to be subject to North Carolina state law,” Ruth Locklear said. “When the federal government recognizes a tribe, it recognizes its government and, in our government, we continue to enjoy our privileges as citizens of North Carolina and the U.S. We won't lose any rights.”