- Telling Our Own StoriesLumbee History and the Federal Acknowledgment Process
Being part of and writing about the Lumbee community means that history always emerges into the present, offering both opportunities and challenges for my scholarship and my sense of belonging. I was born in Robeson County, North Carolina, a place that Lumbees refer to as "the Holy Land," "God's Country," or, mostly, "home," regardless of where they actually reside. My parents raised me two hours away in the city of Durham, making me an "urban Indian" (or as my cousins used to say, a "Durham rat"). I have a Lumbee family; both of my parents are Lumbees, and all of my relatives are Lumbees—I'm just a Lum, I'm Indian. This is how I talk about myself, using terms and categories of knowledge (like "home" and "Lum") that have specific meanings to me and to other Lumbees but may mean nothing special to anyone else. Stories and places spring from these categories and become history.
I was drawn to researching and writing about my People's history in part because the opportunity to tell our own story was too rare for me to pass up. Outsiders, people who do not belong to the group, have told our stories for us, often characterizing us as a "tri-racial isolate," "black Indians," or "multi-somethings."1 Lumbees seem to have a particular reputation for multiracial ancestry. Perhaps our seemingly anomalous position in the South raises the question—as nonwhites, the argument goes, whites must have classed Lumbees socially with African Americans; therefore, Lumbees must have married African Americans extensively because they could not have married anyone who was white. At the heart of these arguments are two converging assumptions: one, that ancestry and cultural identity are consanguineous rather than subject to the changing contexts of human relations, and two, that white supremacy [End Page 499] is a timeless norm rather than a social structure designed to ensure the dominance of a certain group.2 Race has been linked to blood and ancestry and is a category of knowledge with a heavy impact on questions of Indian identity. But identity is much more than ancestry.
Indian identity has a political component as well. When I began researching my dissertation on Lumbee identity during segregation, which I am now revising into a book, I knew that the Lumbee community was proudly and stubbornly decentralized—within the larger community are many smaller communities formed around families, special places, and economic and religious interests. I discovered that while the group's existing decentralization contributed to the formation of political and economic factions, non-Indians routinely exacerbated those disputes by promoting varied standards and criteria for being Indian. Race, as a category of knowledge more than as a biological reality, has influenced Native American identity formation and political factionalism. Indians embraced trends such as racial segregation and racial science when it suited their quest for recognition, but they did not always easily agree on their strategies, and they frequently rejected some aspects of white supremacy. To paraphrase historian Alexandra Harmon, the emblems of national identity have never enjoyed unanimous endorsement, whether in the American nation or in Native nations.3
I have pored over government documents, manuscript records, photographs, maps, oral history transcripts, and census data to figure out what role race, kinship, internal tribal divisions, and national identities played in the perpetuation of Indian identity. I also have access to different sources. My ancestors had their own stakes in this debate, and I have learned of their experiences from relatives and other tribal members not in the halls of academe but at funerals, weddings, and reunions and at kitchen tables over breakfast and in living rooms during favorite TV shows. Ultimately, I learned from the documentary record that for Lumbees, factionalism became a constructive way to affirm an Indian identity in the midst of conflicting messages from the federal and state governments. When I encountered resistance to my research from tribal government officials and support of it from descendants of the historical figures involved, I learned firsthand that political disagreements and factionalism are inseparable from being Lumbee and...