While casino expansion in North Carolina fizzled out in 2023, lawmakers indicated their interest in helping the Lumbee Tribe secure a casino, if other conditions are met.
The Lumbee Tribe, with an estimated 55,000 members, is the largest non-federally-recognized tribe in the US and one of eight state-recognized tribes in North Carolina.
While the General Assembly has not indicated whether the budget will include North Carolina casino expansion, the 2023 casino proposal draft showed the state was interested in “ensuring equitable treatment of all Indian tribes recognized by this state.”
The Lumbee’s long, painful road to federal recognition
North Carolina formally recognized the Lumbee Tribe in 1885. The tribe used that recognition to build its community, including setting up an Indian Normal School in 1888. The school emphasized tribal affiliation for all pupils, requiring every student to prove four generations of tribal ancestry to be accepted.
Despite the tribe’s efforts to affirm its identity, the federal government has never fully recognized it.
In 1956, the federal government did acknowledge the existence of the tribe, but in a very superficial sense. Its acknowledgment did not afford the tribe any benefits that come from formal federal recognition.
Benefits that, as of 1988, include protection under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA). IGRA would allow the tribe to establish gaming compacts, much like those enjoyed by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (ECBI) and its two tribal casinos – Harrah’s Cherokee and Harrah’s Cherokee Valley River – in the far-western counties of the state.
One of the purposes of IGRA is to secure “tribal autonomy,” which many tribes do by operating casinos that create jobs and bring significant revenue to the tribe. Without federal recognition and IGRA oversight, the Lumbee Tribe cannot establish the necessary gaming compacts to operate a casino.
Stepping up for the Lumbee through North Carolina casino legislation
Since receiving nominal recognition from the federal government in 1956, the tribe has failed to secure full federal protection. As such, it has been unable to benefit from casino gaming. Were the Tar Heel State to legalize commercial casinos, it could fast-track the Lumbee Tribe in developing a casino.
That is what the state attempted to do this year: legalize casinos and provide a license to a tribe the state has recognized for nearly 140 years. While the plans fell through, the state could easily take them up again in the 2024 legislative session.
In so doing, the legislature would create greater tribal equity by taking direct aim at the “burdens” caused by the federal government’s failure to recognize the tribe.
The 2023 draft bill text read, “It is the purpose … to provide appropriate redress for dissimilar treatment resulting from the federal legislation cited in subdivision (1).” The legislation cited being the 1956 resolution superficially acknowledging the tribe.
While the intentions to step up for the Lumbee are there, the state cannot circumvent the pathway to federal recognition. For example, the draft casino bill stated that the Lumbee Tribe would be awarded a casino license with all application fees waived if several conditions are met. First among them: “The United States federal government grants full federal recognition to the Lumbee Tribe.”
Why have the Lumbee failed to secure federal recognition?
Why has the Lumbee Tribe remained the largest tribe without full federal recognition? The answer is a complicated one, and one that this article does not claim to provide in its totality.
Most of the tribe (64%) reside in a small area around the Lumbee River, mainly in Robeson County. This site, as historians have noted, has been the continuous home for tribal groups since 12,000 B.C.E.
Since the first signs of colonial encroachment, the Lumbee River represented a secluded crossroads where different tribes could avoid the presence of European settlers. Many passed through; some stayed and intermixed with the Lumbee; some moved on.
While the tribe has roots in three main tribal language families, the many historical tribes that passed through the area and commingled over time, along with European settlers who eventually settled the area, have presented a challenge for the Lumbee under the constructs of the Office of Federal Acknowledgment (OFA), which has verified tribal applications for federal recognition since 1978.
The stringent requirements around record collection have created impasses for a tribe that has seen a broad confluence of cultural influences shape its identity. This despite the fact the tribe has resided in the same small area for thousands of years, has been recognized by the state since 1885 and has had a formal Indian school in place since 1887 – a school that has changed names, evolved and is now a member of the UNC system (UNC Pembroke).
Along with the daunting task of producing the requisite records, the OFA has worked incredibly slowly in processing requests.
A 2007 legislative hearing on the Lumbee Tribe’s request for recognition included testimony from former U.S. Rep. Nick J. Rahall, who was chair for the committee on natural resources, addressing the process of federal recognition as “the never-ending regulatory maze filled with distorted mirrors, rubber rooms and trick doors.”
In a report submitted with a 2009 congressional bill called the “Lumbee Recognition Act,” which petitioned Congress to grant federal recognition to the tribe, former U.S. Sen. Byron Dorgan wrote of the inefficacy of the OFA, stating that “since the regulations were first drafted in 1978, 67 petitions have been resolved – 45 thru the regulatory process and 22 by Congress or other means.”
In over 30 years, only 45 tribes out of hundreds that have applied received federal recognition through the process conducted by the OFA.
These factors have stymied the Lumbee Tribe’s quest for federal recognition through the OFA and led it to pursue federal recognition through an act of Congress.
Until now, Congress has not acted.
A focus on fairness could change the Lumbee’s fortunes
The Lumbee Tribe is hopeful its fortunes will change soon. A new bill, The Lumbee Fairness Act, has been introduced to the US Congress to replace the old Lumbee Recognition Act.
The new bill focuses on the many needs that would be filled – health care, education and economic development – through federal recognition.
The hope is that shifting the focus to the question of fairness will sway enough legislators to agree that Congress ought to act to protect a tribe that has, in many ways, cemented its identity over the past 140 years.
John Lowery, the Lumbee tribal chairman, summarized the bill’s intent to a South Carolina ABC News affiliate: “The Fairness act is saying, ‘Hey, you’ve already recognized us. Now you need to give us our benefits.’ ”
While the legislature failed to advance casino expansion in 2023, the language of draft casino bills, particularly regarding the allotment of a casino to the Lumbee, could be carried over to next legislative session, when the General Assembly will be poised to address casino expansion in greater detail.
Image: Willis Glassgow / AP photo