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Down by the Ol' Lumbee: An Investigation into the Origin and Use of the Word "Lumbee" Prior to 1952

From: Native South
Volume 3, 2010
pp. 103-117 | 10.1353/nso.2010.0004

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

American Indians in Robeson County, North Carolina, know the county's main waterway as the Lumbee. Designated by state legislation in 1809 as the Lumber River, it snakes its way through the swamps and farm fields of Robeson and neighboring counties. Nestled along its banks, mainly near Pembroke, North Carolina, live the Lumbee Indians who, in 1952, adopted "Lumbee" as their tribal name. Four years later, in 1956, the U.S. Congress recognized the Lumbee Indians, but simultaneously denied them the benefits and services shared by other fully federally recognized tribes. Since the late 1980s the Lumbee have sought full federal recognition. Opponents of Lumbee recognition have questioned the authenticity of the word "Lumbee," arguing that it was a made-up word. As recently as March 8, 2009, in an online blog, a user posted, "The Lumbee name has only been in existence since the [19]50's."

In response to such arguments, an investigation into the use of the word "Lumbee" prior to the tribe's official adoption of the name reveals that the American Indians of Robeson and surrounding counties had a long tradition of referring to the river as the Lumbee. Indeed, as evidenced by the fact that state Representative Hamilton McMillan first documented the word in 1888 and poet John Charles McNeill catapulted the term into the mainstream vernacular in the early 1900s, it is clear that use of the word "Lumbee" had been common among the Indian and non-Indian communities of Robeson County long before 1952

The Lumber River flows through southeastern North Carolina as a tributary of the Great Pee Dee River watershed. Prior to 1809 the Lumber River and its headwaters, Drowning Creek, were known together as Drowning Creek. In 1809, however, "[a]n Act to facilitate and open the Navigation of Lumber River, from M'Farland's Turnpike to the South-Carolina Line" designated the 115-mile stretch of Drowning Creek from the Scotland County–Hoke County border to the North Carolina–South Carolina state line as the Lumber River. The act also established the Lumber River Navigation Company to open the navigation of the river as a "public highway." At the North Carolina–South Carolina state line, the Lumber River becomes the Little Pee Dee River, which eventually flows into the Great Pee Dee River and then to the Atlantic Ocean. The watershed's mouth lies at Georgetown, South Carolina.

The Lumber River's headwaters extend from Moore County to the Scotland County–Hoke County border and still retain the name Drowning Creek. In 1803, during a visit to Robeson County, Methodist Bishop Francis Asbury remarked that Drowning Creek was given that name "so called from the drowning of some Indians." In a 1912 Robesonian newspaper article, the Lumber River was described as a "dangerous stream and it seems to be rightly called 'Drowning Creek.' It has claimed many victims.… The drowning of two boys here last week ought to serve as a warning to other boys to be careful how they trifle with the treacherous currents in the dark waters of the Lumbee."

In and along its swirling black waters lives a plethora of wildlife and plant life. Species such as the whitetail deer, raccoon, beaver, mink, turkey, and duck, along with the rare and endangered alligator, cape fear chub, giant yucca skipper, red-cockaded woodpecker, pine barrens tree frog, and the river frog inhabit the river's shores. Plant life abounds with wildflowers such as the mountain laurel, wild azalea, swamp mallow, spider lily, and native wisteria, in addition to the bald cypress, tulip poplar, river birch, and water elm. Several rare plants such as the sarvis holly and Carolina bogmint also make their home along the river.

In 1989 the North Carolina General Assembly established the Lumber River State Park, headquartered at Princess Ann near Orrum in eastern Robeson County. The park contains 8,438 acres of land and 115 miles of state-designated natural and scenic waters. In 1998 the U.S. Department of the Interior added 81 miles of the river, in two noncontiguous segments, to the National Wild and Scenic River System. The Lumber River is the only black-water river in North Carolina...