Lumbee Indians fight for liberty, freedom

By Kayron K. Maynor

Why should the extensive debate regarding federal recognition of the Lumbee Indians warrant such significance?

The Lumbee Indians demonstrated strong identity and the freedom to co-exist harmoniously with other tribes and races in the early 1800s.

Then, in 1835, there was an attempt to legislate the Lumbee Indians out of existence.

As a people, as Natives, the Lumbee were raped of land, education, citizenship, voting rights and a way of life.

In 1868, the N.C. Supreme Court restored citizenship, but with restrictions: They were denied the right to vote, bear arms, serve on a jury or marry whites

This was not being a free people and it sent the understated message to the tribal people that it was a second-class citizenry.

Undeniably, the historical grief that these acts caused are embedded in the identity and character of the Lumbee Indians.

Still, we have been described by the late Rev. Jerry Lowry as a “miraculous people, standing tall, visible, yet invisible to the masses.” Self-determination has always been our driving force and saving grace.

In 1887, The Croatan Normal School was established in Robeson County  part with state funds.

Today, it is recognized as the University of North Carolina at Pembroke.  The university, built by the sweat of the local American Indians, embraced local American Indians.

And the thought resonated throughout Native communities that education would support us as a collective community to progress.

For many years and for many generations, it did.

Then, the university was recognized for what it was — a literal gold mine in an impoverished area.

Negotiations spoke of what the university could become.  Of course, the Native community has always shared: It was a historical teaching.

Now, the university has earned the distinction of being the most diverse university in the southeastern region of North Carolina, but it has to be pondered: Has the cost been too great for local Native community?

In 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt declared December 15th as “Bill of Rights Day”, but for whom?

Overt segregation and the ugly face of prejudice were imposed on the Lumbees until the civil rights movement.

In the last 40 years, the Lumbees have made enormous strides economically and professionally.

We continue, however, to cope with covert discrimination and the remnants of historical grief that results from oppression.

Indeed, the American Indian may be physically free, but the restraints of mental bondage continue to restrain the human spirit and we falter to thrive.

For example:

* Indian women are more than twice as likely to be raped as are non-Indian women, according to a report by Amnesty International. Treatment of Indian rape victims is a violation of human rights, says Larry Cox, executive director of Amnesty International USA. Natives are requesting Congress to fund the Violence Against Women Act at $683 million.

* American Indians have the highest incidence of dropout than any other racial group in North Carolina, according to the annual report of the N.C. Department of Public Instruction annual.

* Poverty among the households of Robeson County, home of the Lumbees is staggering: At least one-third of the households live on $15,000 or less.

In the late 70s Congress gave the Bureau of Indian Affair the authority to both recognize and terminate tribes. Is this absolute power?

Will federal recognition finally give the Lumbees the freedom to acknowledge their identity, their Indianness, or will federal recognition create internal tribal warring?

This is a chapter in a long historical saga that I eagerly await to see unfold.

Kayron K. Maynor is a social worker and 1995-97 Friday Fellow at the Wildacres Leadership Initiative in Durham, N.C. She wrote this article in collaboration with Brenda D. Deese, director of student services for the Robeson County Public Schools in Lumberton, N.C.

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