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Because It Is Right

There are approximately fifty-six thousand enrolled members of the Lumbee nation, most of them living in Robeson and the adjacent counties in southeastern North Carolina. They are the largest Indian tribe east of the Mississippi River. They have been officially recognized by the state of North Carolina since 1885 and participate at the state level in many ways, including in the North Carolina Commission of Indian Affairs. They also participate at the national level in many ways, including in the National Congress of American Indians and the National Indian Education Association. Although the United States Congress recognized the Lumbee as Indian people in 1956, they were denied full federal benefits. The federal relationship with the Lumbee was effectively recognized and terminated by the same act of Congress.

No doubt there are political reasons for this, having to do with the government's policy, current at that time, of seeking to terminate its relationship with Indian nations. And no doubt there are also political reasons why the Lumbee have not yet been fully recognized, despite their many efforts and the mountain of documentation they have brought forth. But it is not my intention in this paper to consider the politics of the matter, because I believe that the anthropological and historical elements of the Lumbee story are vastly more important.

Why should the Lumbee be fully recognized by the federal government? There are several possible answers to this question, based on various lines of evidence and reasoning. Here I want to reflect on an anthropological and historical perspective that points to the interpretation that the Lumbee should be afforded full recognition by the federal government. [End Page 80]

There are many things about the past that we can never know. There are archaeological sites we will never recover. There are elements of history and culture that are lost to us in the present because of unwitting neglect, unavoidable preliteracy, massive epidemics, colonial warfare, and many other reasons. But there are things we can, and do, know.

The archaeological record in the land of the Lumbee appears to be a very rich record indeed, although it has just begun to be read. Judging from the series of projectile point types from Clovis-like through Clarksville found in sites in Robeson County, Native American occupation of the county seems to extend back as far into the past as anywhere else in North Carolina.1 There are no obvious gaps in the artifact collection from Paleo-Indian times through early, middle, and late Archaic, early, middle, and late Woodland times, and into the historic period. Indian people have always been here.

Review of this archaeological record reveals several important things in addition to the apparently consistent occupation. One of these is the presence of diverse cultural influences in prehistory. This is especially important given that arguments against Lumbee recognition have sometimes been based on the assertion that the Lumbee represent a post-Columbian amalgamation of Indian people from various sources including Siouan, Algonkian, and Iroquoian people. However, archaeological evidence collected here suggests that diverse cultural influences have been fairly common for a much longer time than these few hundred years of United States history.

Beginning in the middle Archaic period between six and eight thousand years ago relatively unusual artifacts such as an Eva-like basal-notched projectile point began to appear among the more predictable local artifact assemblages. The presence of stone and, later, ceramic artifacts suggests cultural exchange from elsewhere continued through the archaeological record. Artifacts more commonly found in Florida, Tennessee, and Virginia, on the outer Coastal Plain as well as in the Piedmont and the mountains, have been found here alongside more typical artifacts in Robeson County, all of which suggests that the region has for thousands of years been a zone of cultural interaction.2

We should not, therefore, be surprised to find that Native American people living here at the time of European contact would be joined by remnants of other tribes seeking to avoid the onslaught of European culture and epidemic diseases. But the archaeological record indicates that [End Page 81] there were already indigenous people living in the land of the Lumbee. Indeed, a number of contact period sites in Robeson County, where late prehistoric artifacts are found alongside early historic artifacts, suggest that Native Americans lived here during the transition from prehistoric times to historic times. The descendants of those Native American people, today's Lumbee, trace their historical and genealogical records back to those same early historic times in the same locations.3 Again, there is no apparent gap in the record; rather, there is an overlap between the historical-genealogical record and the archaeological record.

Yet another significant thing revealed in the archaeological record here concerns the number of sites and what that suggests about the size of the pre-Columbian Native American population. In Phase I reconnaissance, although less than 1 percent of the county was examined, 314 previously unrecorded archaeological sites were documented. Thus, sites were encountered at a density rate of one site per eleven acres sampled, a very dense distribution. Even though that reconnaissance was conducted from an intuitive sampling approach, this still suggests that Robeson County was widely utilized by Native Americans and that the pre-Columbian population could have been sizable. Not only have Indians always been here, enjoying cultural influences from elsewhere in an apparently consistent occupation, but there was also a substantial population.

One of the greatest controversies about the Lumbee centers around who lived where, and when. There is a widespread idea among some Indian and non-Indian people that Native Americans moved into what is now Robeson County and settled here along the Lumbee (Lumber) River sometime after Columbus. To a certain extent, that is true. Historical references indicate that some Indian people did move in from other locations.4 Such references point to movements of Cheraws who spoke a Siouan language, Hatterases who spoke an Algonkian language, and Tuscaroras who spoke an Iroquoian tongue. Their movements into the region happened between the time of John White's "Lost Colony" in the 1580s and the Civil War in the 1860s, and apparently consisted of fairly small numbers of people. The problem arises if one stops thinking at that point.

One shortcoming of the "Indians-moved-in-and-settled" theory is that it overlooks important evidence. The theory implies, and some people seem now to believe, that the land of the Lumbee was a vacuum, that no one was here until Indian folks from elsewhere "moved in and [End Page 82] settled." Such conclusions are simply inconsistent with archaeological evidence that shows that this area was already occupied by Native Americans before the reported movements of the Cheraws, Hatterases, Tuscaroras, and possibly others. In addition to the presence of Indian people for millennia, clearly a late prehistoric occupation was here along the Lumbee River that is illustrated by the presence of at least thirty-one archaeological sites with late Woodland artifacts. Artifacts at these sites suggest Indian occupation of present-day Robeson County between AD 1200 and 1750. In short, there must have been Native Americans here before anybody else could have "moved in and settled."

Why have the area's original occupants so often been overlooked? One reason is that the necessary archaeological research had not been done until relatively recently. Another reason is that, in the absence of knowledge of the archaeology of the region, it was easy to rely on historical references as the only explanation for a large Native American population here in the twentieth century. But we must not forget those original late prehistoric Native American inhabitants, because their descendants, along with those of the Cheraw, Hatteras, and Tuscarora nations, are almost certainly still with us.

As more archaeological investigations are conducted in the land of the Lumbee it is possible that we will encounter an undisturbed site, or sites, that will tell us more about the connections between those late Woodland inhabitants and the living Lumbee people. This is an excellent reason to do more archaeology here, as well as a reason to strive to keep sites from being destroyed by development and construction. Someday it may be possible to conduct controlled scientific excavation at an undisturbed late Woodland village site here in the land of the Lumbee.

One argument used against Lumbee recognition has been based on the assertion that the word Lumbee is an invented word, that it comes from the word lumber, as in Lumberton, the seat of Robeson County. Some people take this assumption from the belief that the federal government first formally accepted the word in 1956. Opponents of federal recognition for the Lumbee have used this line of thought as one of their main arguments. They seem to use it to mean that the word Lumbee did not really exist before the 1950s, and thus the Lumbee people did not either. But this is far from the whole story.

What is the truth about the word Lumbee? The earliest written reference I have been able to find is in the 1888 work of Hamilton Macmillan. [End Page 83] Did he invent the word? In a discussion of the geographical extent of Indians in North Carolina in the 1730s he wrote: "These Indians [had] roads connecting the distant settlements with their principal seat on the Lumbee, as the Lumber River was then called."5 Why would Macmillan say this? Was he trying to convince the world that the Indians of Robeson County ought to be called Lumbee? If that had been his intention, then we might expect him to lean heavily on the word Lumbee as the original name of the river in order to strengthen his case that the people should also be called Lumbee. But that is not what Macmillan was trying to do.

Instead Macmillan wanted to convince the world that the Indians of Robeson County ought to be called Croatan. The bill he drafted for the North Carolina General Assembly called for establishment of the Croatan Indian Normal School, which would eventually become the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, and in his statement about the ancient name of the Lumbee River he was only repeating what he was told by Indian elders of the day. These elders in the 1880s had probably been taught when they were young that the original word was Lumbee, which suggests that the word had been in use earlier than anybody in the 1880s could remember—all of which would seem to make Lumbee a very old word.6

Other writers around the turn of the twentieth century tell us of this same oral history. Angus McLean wrote in the 1880s that when "white settlers first arrived they found located on the waters of the Lumbee, as Lumber River was then called, a tribe of Indians speaking broken English."7 Like Macmillan, McLean had nothing to gain from the use of the word Lumbee. O. M. McPherson, an Indian agent for the federal government, wrote that "the Lumber River was anciently called the Lumbee… . The Lumbee River is a branch of the Pedee and the similarity of the names would suggest the same origin. All these small Siouan tribes were originally parts of, or confederated with, the Cheraws." Agent McPherson concluded that the Indians of Robeson County were of predominantly Siouan origin, which now seems to come much closer to the truth than McLean's conclusion that they were Cherokees.8 But neither Macmillan, McLean, nor McPherson had any special investment in the word Lumbee. They were just repeating what they had been told—not that the word Lumbee was recently derived from the word lumber as some people nowadays want us to believe, but that the original name of the river was Lumbee. [End Page 84]

Another example of use of the word Lumbee before the federal government recognized the name in 1956 comes from the "Lumbee Tattler," a yearbook produced at Pembroke State College. Were the local Native American students who wrote the "Lumbee Tattler" and gave it that name in 1941 trying in some way to force the name Lumbee on the people? Could it be true that Lumbee was a word from within the Indian community, not one planted on it by outsiders the way "Croatan" and "Cherokee" had been?

If it is true that Lumbee is the original name of the river along which the people lived, then it might be reasonable to conclude that Lumbee was also the original name of the indigenous people of this place. The supposition seems especially true in light of the fact that several other eastern Siouan nations who lived in the general region also shared their names with the rivers along which they lived, such as the Santees, Waterees, Catawbas, and others.9 Whatever the ultimate truth may be about the word Lumbee, one thing is certain—we seldom arrive at the truth by looking at only a part of the evidence.

As the effects of European colonization swept across the Carolinas in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, almost everything in what became Robeson County changed. Population changed, drastically reduced by epidemics. Language changed, whole lexicons disappearing as nations merged or vanished. Culture changed, overwhelmed by contact with the outside world. But some things did not change: One was the will of the people to hold on to their Indian identity. Another was the word, sometimes unspoken but never forgotten, Lumbee.

In the 1580s, when he and his comrades traveled to villages near the soon-to-be "Lost Colony" at Roanoke Island, Thomas Harriot recorded that many people died immediately after his visit. He wrote:

[W]ithin a few days after our departure … the people began to die very fast, and many in short space; in some towns about twenty, in some forty, in some sixty, and in one six score [120], which in truth was very many in respect of their numbers … ; the disease [was] also so strange, that they neither knew what it was, nor how to cure it.10

John Lawson, who traveled extensively among the Indians of the Carolinas in the early eighteenth century, estimated that by 1705 the population had already been reduced in epidemics by five-sixths within two hundred miles of European settlements, which would encompass all [End Page 85] Indians between the Charleston and Jamestown colonies including those in what is today Robeson County.11 As diseases rolled across the land, one last resort of many declining nations was to coalesce with remnants of other tribes in isolated areas. One such place was the land of the Lumbee, which came to be known in the early 1800s as "the Settlement."12

Language changed. Situated as it was near the geographical interface of three language families, Siouan, Algonkian, and Iroquoian, the Settlement was a place where people speaking different languages came together. As small remnant groups, sometimes as few as a single extended family, joined the preexisting Lumbee community at the Settlement, old language barriers began to melt away. With only a few members of these groups left after the massive epidemics, whole languages disappeared. Encouraged by the desire not to have to learn the language of a traditional opponent, such as a Siouan speaker learning an Iroquoian language; encouraged by missionaries who promised the Indians an English-speaking God who would protect the people from epidemic diseases; and encouraged by an increasing need to trade with Europeans for products only available in English, the people of the Settlement quickly adopted English as a lingua franca, a common language of trade. In the process, all that would remain of the Lumbee language was the word itself—Lumbee.

Culture changed. A part of the acculturation process for Native Americans all over what became the eastern United States was the disappearance, or at least submergence, of externally visible elements of culture. Many of these things are what many Americans think of as being "all there is" to Indian culture: clothing, dance, language, architecture, and so on. In the land of the Lumbee during the early historic period, many of these outward cultural elements vanished from sight because it was safer to get along with the dominant culture without those elements. Especially following the Tuscarora and Cheraw Wars of the 1710s and the other Indian wars preceding the American Revolution simply being an Indian in North Carolina was dangerous.13 Indians were killed or driven off their lands just for being nonwhite; for being in the way of "progress." Finding a place where other Indian people lived—a geographically isolated place where there was a sense of community, of togetherness, of Indian culture—became very important. And there is much more to culture than its external elements. Culture is at its core a system of learned and shared meanings—ways of thinking, ways of relating to people and the universe. [End Page 86]

When the Scots and Irish came to what became Robeson County in the mid-eighteenth century, the Indians already had many European trade goods, including metal tools, and were getting on with the business of making a living for their families as farmers. They had been farmers of maize, beans, and squash long before the Europeans came, and they could farm a living right along if given the chance. Some elements of the old culture did not change much.

One of the traditional elements of Lumbee culture that did not change is that sense of personal and community identity to which Lumbee people have so fiercely held. They have always known they were Indians. Whenever people from the outside world came to visit or to stay, it was always with the knowledge that these people were Indians in their hearts and in their outlook. The elders knew, and they taught the children.

Among the things children learned at the feet of their elders was medicine. A number of Lumbee people, especially elders, still have knowledge of herbal remedies passed down for generations. Arthur Barlowe in the late sixteenth century, and John Lawson in the early eighteenth century, noted that sassafras was a common treatment among the Indians of the Carolinas.14 A study in the mid-1980s of health among a large sample of Lumbee people revealed that sassafras was still the most commonly used herbal remedy.15 There are and always have been specialists in traditional healing in the Lumbee community (for example, one elder who passed away recently was widely known for his ability to treat effectively an extensive list of ailments, from hypertension to arthritis to cancer).16

Kinship as well as place, culture, and medicine bound the Lumbee. It is very common to find several generations of Lumbee people living in close proximity, on the same land or "home place." Within this extended family we find a network of sharing, a support base. Few Lumbee people go hungry or homeless for long, because there is always someone to whom they can turn, some part of the kinship network on which they can depend. One of the first things Lumbees who don't know each other ask is, "Who are your people?" This is a way to situate folks in a known network of families and clans, commonly called "sets" among the modern Lumbee.

As the conquest of America advanced, Carolina's Indian people were expelled from their homes, sometimes enslaved, frequently abused. The tendency of Indian people to coalesce into new communities—to adopt Indian people from other decimated tribes, to hold onto their identity as [End Page 87] Indians and not to surrender it even though they had to speak English and dress in the European style to survive—resulted in the presence of the Lumbee community today. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the Lumbee is that they are still here at all. Given everything they have been subjected to by the forces of history, it is a miracle that there are any Lumbee people left.

Why should the Lumbee be recognized by the federal government? There are many reasons. They should be recognized because this is their ancestral land; they have always been here. They should be recognized because their occupation of this land has been consistent, as is shown in the archaeological, historical, and genealogical records. They should be recognized because their name is as old as the river's name. They should be recognized because despite epidemics and wars, disenfranchisement and oppression, they are still here. They should be recognized because they have held onto their Indian identity, their sense of who they are, when it would have been easier to leave all that behind. They should be recognized because even though they no longer speak their core ancestral language, they still remember its name. They should be recognized because they have persisted in the culture of the heart, in holding onto what it means to be Lumbee. And there are many other reasons. But in the final analysis, and in view of all the evidence, they should be recognized because it is right.

Stanley Knick  

Stanley Knick is a member of the American Indian Studies Department at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke and has been director of the Native American Resource Center since 1986. He received his PhD in anthropology from Indiana University and teaches courses in archaeology, Native American health, and contemporary Native American issues. His research interests include the archaeology of southeastern North Carolina, art and culture of Native Americans, and global traditional cultures. In 1996 Knick was inducted as an Honorary Member of the Lumbee nation.


I want to thank James Carson for his timely editorial assistance. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to the many members of the Lumbee community who for more than twenty years have shared their culture and history, their homes and their lives. Thanks to the Creator for opening the doors of this project.


1. Stanley Knick, Robeson Trails Archaeological Survey: Reconnaissance in Robeson County (Pembroke, NC: Pembroke State University Printing Office, 1988).

2. Mark Mathis and Paul Gardner, "Archaeological Survey of the Proposed North Carolina Indian Cultural Center, Robeson County, N.C. (1986)," manuscript on file at the North Carolina Office of State Archaeology; and Stanley Knick, Along The Trail: A Reader about Native Americans (Pembroke, NC: Pembroke State University Printing Office, 1992).

3. Julian Pierce, Cynthia Hunt-Locklear, Wes White, and Jack Campisi, "Lumbee Federal Recognition Petition" (Pembroke, NC: Lumbee River Legal Services, 1987). [End Page 88]

4. Pierce et al., "Lumbee Federal Recognition Petition"; and Adolph Dial and David Eliades, The Only Land I Know (San Francisco: Indian Historian Press, 1975).

5. Hamilton Macmillan, Sir Walter Raleigh's Lost Colony (Wilson, NC: Advance Press, 1888), 5.

6. Macmillan, Sir Walter Raleigh's Lost Colony, 5.

7. As quoted in Orlando McPherson, Indians of North Carolina, 63rd U.S. Congress, Document 677 (Washington, DC: United States Government Printing Office, 1915), 120.

8. McPherson, Indians of North Carolina, 23.

9. John Powell, Introduction to the Handbook of American Indian Languages and Indian Linguistic Families of America North of Mexico (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1966), 83–221; and Wes Taukchiray and Alice Kasakoff, "Contemporary Native Americans in South Carolina," in Indians of the Southeastern United States in the Late 20th Century, ed. J. Anthony Paredes (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1992), 72–101.

10. Thomas Harriot, A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia (New York: Dover Publications, 1972), 28.

11. John Lawson, A New Voyage to Carolina, ed. Hugh Lefer (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1967), 27.

12. William M. Evans, To Die Game (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1971), 29.

13. Lawrence Lee, Indian Wars in North Carolina, 1663–1763 (Raleigh: North Carolina Division of Archives, 1968).

14. David L. Corbett, Explorations, Descriptions and Attempted Settlements of Carolina, 1584–1590 (Raleigh: North Carolina Department of Archives and History, 1953), 13–26; and Lawson, New Voyage to Carolina, 27.

15. Stanley Knick, Growing Up Down Home: Health and Growth in the Lumbee Nation (Pembroke, NC: Pembroke Community Workshop Press, 1986), 35–36.

16. Edward Croom, Medicinal Plants of the Lumbee Indians (Ann Arbor: University Microfilms International, 1983); and Steve Wall and Harvey Arden, Wisdomkeepers (Hillsboro, OR: Beyond Words Publishing, 1990), 56–63. [End Page 89]

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  • Lumbee Indians -- Legal status, laws, etc. -- United States.
  • Lumbee Indians -- North Carolina -- Robeson County -- History.
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