And, they say, they plan to play their ace card -- economic development benefits -- when they make yet another trip to the nation's capital. They say they will have support from local and state legislators when they get there.
Early next year, tribal representatives will ask Congressman Mike McIntyre of Lumberton to introduce a bill asking the U.S. government to recognize Lumbees as Indians and to provide Lumbees with the same benefits as other federally recognized tribes in the country -- something the tribe has sought for more than 100 years.
Lumbee Tribal Chief Milton Hunt says the tribe's recognition efforts won't be overshadowed by other tribes like the Eastern Band of Cherokees, who have gained political clout thanks to increased political contributions to state legislators.
The Cherokees have been able to increase their contributions because of the profits generated by their 8-year-old casino. This year, they gave $120,000 to political campaigns.
And, although the Cherokees have opposed federal recognition for the Lumbees in the past because they don't want another slice taken out of the benefits pie, Hunt says he doesn't believe the Cherokees will oppose Lumbee recognition this time.
"The Cherokees are one of the ones we look forward to working with regardless of what may or may not have happened in the past," Hunt said.
"I understand that sometime in the past, the Cherokees may have opposed Lumbee federal recognition. If they opposed us in the past, that existed before (Eastern Band Chief Leon) Jones' or my administration.
"We are working to build a new bridge between us," Hunt said. "I have a good working relationship with Chief Jones. I find him to be an honorable man. We certainly encourage help from anybody that is willing to help us move forward and finish a task we started in 1885."
Jones, reached at his home on the Cherokee reservation, said: "I have no objections to the Lumbees or any other tribe receiving federal recogntion -- as long as they meet the exact criteria. If the Lumbees meet that criteria, I will welcome them aboard."
The Lumbee tribe, also known as the Lumbee-Cheraw, is the largest federally unrecognized American Indian tribe east of the Mississippi River, with 55,000 members. Tribal officials say the size of the tribe could be a hindrance to recognition, because each enrolled tribal member would be entitled to a financial allotment.
Hunt says that federal recognition would provide much-needed economic and educational benefits and health-care services to the tribe. Local legislators, U.S. Rep. McIntyre and Sens. John Edwards and Elizabeth Dole have pledged support for federal recognition.
"The big advantage this year is Jesse Helms is out," said Jimmy Goins, head of the federal recognition committee. "He has been a real stumbling block."
Hunt said he likes the tribe's chances this year with the added bipartisan vote of Dole, who was elected to replace Helms in the Senate.
During recent campaign speeches, Dole stressed that the Lumbees would be able to get help for better education, college tuition and better housing.
Dole was unavailable for comment for this article, but her spokesman, Mary Brewer, said "Sen.-elect Dole is very supportive of full federal recognition for the Lumbee Tribe."
McIntyre said he has supported the Lumbees during his five-year tenure in office.
"Everybody's got a real positive attitude this time," McIntyre said. "I have been talking with senators and congressmen and determining who is going to be with us or against us. I have already had personal discussions with other members of Congress on both sides on the aisle about achieving bipartisan support for a recognition bill."
The 10-member recognition committee is scheduled to meet Dec. 5 with McIntyre and his staff to "map out a strategy for achieving federal recognition," Goins said. He said that committee members hope to get the Lumbee Bill introduced in the U.S. Congress in February or March.
Lumbees were first recognized by North Carolina in 1885 as an Indian tribe, when they were known as Croatan Indians. In 1956, Congress passed the Lumbee Act, which recognized the Lumbees but withheld the benefits and privileges that other federally recognized tribes receive. The bill is an amendment to the 1956 Lumbee Act.
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. In order for a bill to become law, a majority, or at least 51 votes must be cast in favor of it in the Senate.
"Recognition bills are always a tough challenge," McIntyre said. "We want to be in the best posture possible for passage and that will affect the exact timing of when the bill is introduced."
Goins said he doesn't expect any action to be taken until 2004.
The Lumbee Tribal Council is reaching out to Lumbees nationwide, asking them to spread the word to their congressmen about federal recognition.
Goins said the tribe's lack of political funding "slows us down," but that the tribe is making up ground with the help of the nationwide networking system. Well-known Lumbees who live outside North Carolina, such as Oklahoma University basketball coach Kelvin Sampson and pop star Jana Sampson, are helping spread the word about federal recognition.
And in Robeson County, Lumbees "are getting support from all three races," Goins said.
He said that the tribe hopes to raise between $75,000 and $100,000 through fund-raisers and donations.
Hunt acknowledged that the Lumbees don't have a lot of money to make political contributions.
"We need as much help as we can get," he said. "Hopefully, we can get support from as broad a base as possible."