Lumbee Indians in the Jim Crow South: Race, Identity, and the Making of a Nation (review)
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Reviewed by
Lumbee Indians in the Jim Crow South: Race, Identity, and the Making of a Nation. By Malinda Maynor Lowery. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010. Pp. xi, 339. $65.00 cloth; $21.95 paper)

The Lumbee Indians of North Carolina have been studied before. Anthropologists Karen Blu and Gerald Sider, who did fieldwork in Lumbee country, published monographs that wrestled with anthropological concepts of race and ethnicity in the context of segregation. In 2005, ethnohistorian Christopher Arris Oakley included the Lumbees in his overview of North Carolina Indians, Keeping the Circle. Each of these works sketched the story of how the Lumbees asserted an Indian identity against those who argued that they were really African Americans seeking to escape discrimination in the Jim Crow South. Although it covers much of the same material as these works, Malinda Maynor Lowry's book is unique. Dr. Lowry is Lumbee, and her work is an "autoethnography" of her People (her capitalization) that represents a Lumbee perspective. Lowry argues that Lumbees' identity formation is flexible and is coherent to insiders, while outsiders, especially policy makers, have insisted on judging Indian "authenticity" by fixed criteria of treaties, anthropological measurements of culture, and hierarchical categories of race. Thus, Lumbees frequently appear to outsiders as hopelessly factionalized and anthropologically suspect. Lumbees, however, have adapted to divergent historical contexts and crafted their Indianness as an ongoing dialogue between insiders and outsiders. This complex exchange is the subject of this book, whose intricate layers of insightful analysis are hard to capture in this brief review.

Using archival materials, oral histories, and family photos and stories, Lowry argues that Lumbee identity is grounded in their own notions of kinship and connections to historical homelands. The tribe consists of descendants of Indian refugees who fled to the swamps of the Lumber River region to escape the disruptions of colonial settlement on the Carolina coast in the late eighteenth century. Lowry begins her narrative during Reconstruction, ending [End Page 431] it in the 1950s. Like other southeastern Indians, Lumbees formed communities around churches and schools and asserted a third racial identity in defiance of the biracial system of Jim Crow. Gradually, political divisions emerged between Lumbees who lived in towns and embraced "progressive" values, such as formal education and self-reliance, and rural Indians who held to a more collectivist ethic. Both factions desired federal recognition as Indians but used different tactics. Rural Indians engaged the Office of Indian Affairs (OIA), which was concerned with Indians' treaty relationships with the federal government and with anthropometric measurements of "Indian blood." Under the Indian New Deal (1932-45), rural Lumbees subjected themselves to measurements of their racial phenotypes to win rights to OIA services. The OIA recognized twenty-two Lumbees as genuine, while simultaneously denying them services because their ancestors lacked a reservation or federal treaties. Town Indians approached federal recognition by appealing to local and state politicians to move legislation through Congress. Working with southern politicians committed to white supremacy forced town Indians to greater acquiescence to racism. The tribe finally won state recognition in 1953, which prompted federal recognition in 1956. The federal declaration, however, again denied Lumbees OIA services because the federal government had no treaties with them.

Lowry's engaging narrative and judicious scrutiny of the intersections of race, class, and colonialism in North Carolina provides both a rich story of these multifaceted people, and a perceptive model for understanding the intricacies of Indian identity. Lowry successfully challenges studies that rely primarily on outsider perceptions, but she does not compromise her scholarship for love of her People. She discusses frankly how Lumbees accepted racism and does not ignore the problems raised by political and class factionalism. Nonetheless, she speaks to these failings as an insider, and her perspective provides a distinct and valuable lens through which to view Lumbee history. [End Page 432]

Katherine M. B. Osburn

Katherine M. B. Osburn teaches history at Tennessee Technological University in Cookeville, Tennessee. She is author of Southern Ute Women: Autonomy and Assimilation on the Reservation (1998; 2009) and has a second monograph, A Tribal History of the Mississippi Choctaws, 1830-1964, currently out...


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