PEMBROKE — The Lumbee Tribe can now pursue federal recognition through the federal Department of Interior’s petition process, but the chairman of the tribe said that is a long process and going through Congress might be the beter and quicker path.
The Department of Interior oversees the Federal Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Solicitor Hilary C. Tompkins issued a memorandum on Dec. 22 reversing the interpretation that the 1956 Lumbee Act prohibited the Lumbee Tribe from pursuing federal recognition through the Department of Interior’s petition process. The traditional interpretation of the act was it required the Lumbee Tribe to seek recognition through Congress.
According to the Cherokee One Feather newspaper, Tompkins found after reviewing the act and related case law that the act does not not bar the Department of Interior from reorganizing the Lumbees by application of the Part 83 acknowledgement process.
“Accordingly, I withdraw and reverse contrary memoranda prepared by the Office of the Solicitor in 1989,” Tompkins said.
If approved by both chambers of Congress, the act makes Lumbee Tribe members eligible for the services and benefits provided to members of all federally recognized tribes.
The Lumbee Recognition Bill has never passed the Senate, but U.S. Rep. Mike McIntyre shepherded the bill through the House in June 2007 and June 2009.
The Lumbees have sought federal recognition since 1888. Congress recognized the tribe in name only in 1956, thus denying its members the financial benefits offered to members of other federally recognized tribes.
Federal recognition could mean hundreds of millions of dollars more a year flowing into the region and enhancing economic development, health care and educational opportunities.
Harvey Godwin Jr., chairman of the Lumbee Tribe, said Friday that it is just another option the tribe can use in its quest for federal recognition.
“This is a long process that could take as long as three to 10 years,” Godwin said. “We like the relationship we now have with our congressional delegation and would hope that the process of going through the Congress would be quicker.”
According to the newspaper, Tompkins disagrees with assertions made by previous Interior Department officials.
“Over the past four decades, the department has vacillated in its interpretations of the Lumbee Act. Solicitor’s Office memoranda in 1989 concluded that the act barred the department from acknowledging the Lumbee Indians as an Indian tribe through the Part 83 process,” she said.” Because I find that neither the text of the Lumbee Act nor its legislative history precludes the Lumbee Indians from petitioning for federal acknowledgment under the department’s regulations, I conclude that they may avail themselves of the acknowledgment process in 25 C.F.R. Part 83.”
Godwin said it is “very unusual” for such a policy reversal to be made.
“This proposed change came up in September,” Godwin said. “I was approached at that time by the Solicitor’s Office while I was in Washington.”
According to the newspaper, Godwin issued a statement a week after the solicitor’s memo was issued.
“The United States Department of the Interior reversed its long-held position that the 1956 Lumbee Act both terminated our existing rights, benefits, and privileges and prohibited the application of future legislation to us as an Indian tribe,” Godwin said. “This opinion does not grant us full federal recognition, but it does open up additional avenues for us to pursue our efforts.”
Bob Shiles can be reached at 910-416-5165.