WASHINGTON, D.C. — U.S. Sen. Richard Burr told the Senate Indian Affairs Committee on Wednesday that the delay on federal recognition for the Lumbee Tribe is “unjust.”
“This is nothing short of discrimination,” said Burr, a former member of the Indian Affairs committee. “The tribe was somewhat recognized by Congress in 1956, but was prevented eligibility to services that other federally recognized tribes receive … This is simply unjust and immoral.”
There was no action taken Wednesday on the proposed Lumbee Recognition Act, which was heard by the committee along with three other bills. The proceeding was a chance to provide testimony to committee members. Burr was joined at the hearing by Harvey Godwin Jr., chairman of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, who also testified.
Both the House and Senate must approve the bill before recognition can be granted. There is a similar bill that has been sitting in a House committee since January 2015. No hearing has been held on that bill.
Burr, the state’s senior senator, summarized the history behind the tribe’s quest for full federal recognition that began in 1888.
“The tribe in 1989 was denied for the third time, and it was determined that it could not go through the Bureau of Indian Affairs to get recognized,” the fifth-term Republican said. “To be recognized it must be an act of Congress, and that is why we are here today.”
The tribe was recognized by the state in 1885. Godwin’s great-grandfather, Quinny Godwin, was one of the first tribal members to petition for federal recognition. Godwin said Thursday he hopes that effort doesn’t stretch past a fourth generation of his family.
Burr challenged the committee to explain how Congress could grant four other tribes recognition by an act of Congress, but leave the Lumbees out.
“They are not asking for a handout, just a hand up,” Burr said. “… It was Congress who put the Lumbees in this situation in 1956. They are just asking Congress to right this wrong for current and future generations.”
Godwin said that Wednesday’s hearing was significant because it came on the same day that committee members heard testimony concerning proposed legislation that would encourage business development and job creation throughout “Indian Country.”
“The hearings focused on government and Indian relationships dealing with job creation and economic development,” he said. “If economic development is to be successful in the 21st century it has to focus on job creation. That’s something we (Lumbees) have been successful in doing recently.”
Recognition would aid economic development throughout Southeastern North Carolina, according to Godwin.
“We have already created business partners even without recognition,” Godwin said. “But recognition would certainly serve as leverage to build on the business relationships we have already established.”
Godwin told the committee that federal recognition would also help maintain cultural identity. He said Lumbees face discrimination, even from federally recognized tribes who fail to consider Lumbees as Indians.
“I remember as a young boy watching Westerns, wanting to be a cowboy rather than the Indian because we were denied identification as Indian, ” Godwin, a Robeson County native, said.
Godwin commended Burr for his strong support of the tribe during Wednesday’s hearing.
“He was not only on target,” Godwin told The Robesonian this morning, “he made the most powerful statement ever … This partnership that has developed between Burr and the tribe is very significant.”
Also testifying at the hearing was Cheryl Andrews-Maltais, senior policy adviser to the acting assistant secretary of Indian Affairs. She told the committee that her agency supports the Lumbee Recognition Act with just a few minor changes.
There was no discussion of the contents of the proposed bill, including a provision that would allow the U.S. Department of Interior to take land into trust for the tribe, with gaming being allowed on that land.
The Lumbee Tribe is the largest tribe east of the Mississippi River, estimated to have more than 55,000 members. If granted federal recognition, it would mean hundreds of millions of dollars for the tribe for economic development, education and health care.
Bob Shiles can be reached at 910-416-5165.