Review: The Lumbee Indians

Rowena McClinton

Rowena McClinton is Professor of Native American Studies and United States History at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.

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Rowena McClinton, "Review: The Lumbee Indians," Journal of Southern Religion (22) (2020):

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Malinda Maynor Lowery.  The Lumbee Indians: An American Struggle. Chapel Hill. University of North Carolina Press. 2018. 304pp. plus index. 978-1-4696-4637-4.

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Malinda Maynor Lowery has written a riveting and all-encompassing history of the Lumbees, the largest tribe east of the Mississippi River. A member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina and associate professor of history and director of the Center for the Study of the American South at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Lowery begins The Lumbee Indians: An American Struggle with the funeral of her husband, Willie French Lowery. Led spontaneously by their daughter, Lydia, attendees sang the deceased’s own composition “Proud to be a Lumbee,” the national anthem personifying Lumbee stories of pride passed from generation to generation. For Lowery, America’s story and its defining moments cannot be told without Lumbee history.

Lowery’s passionate narrative sweeps from first Lumbee contact with Europeans on Roanoke Island (the “Lost Colony,” homeland of the Croatans) to the present day.  She emphasizes Lumbees’ struggles to maintain their distinct identity in a multi-cultural American society, chronicling their survival as a social and cultural community.  With self-determination, freedom, and justice as sustaining characteristics, the Lumbee have transcended near erasure from their homeland through colonization, wars of empire, assimilation, Jim Crow and resistance to white supremacy, and marginalization by the United States government.

Historically, Lumbees claim multiple tribal groups and enslaved African settlers who have lived between the James River in Virginia and the Great Pee Dee River in North Carolina.  Lumbee homeland presently encompasses Robeson, Scotland, Hoke, and Cumberland counties in North Carolina.  The distinctive natural feature is the Lumber River, heretofore called Drowning Creek for it unpredictable currents.  One of the most bio-diverse places in the world, the river decomposes the surrounding organic materials and hosts medicinal plants for healing purposes.  Lumbees sought refuge in these swamplands, a “safe haven for Indians to be just who they are” (3).  Thus Lumbee identity also rests in attachment to these ancient wetlands layered in clay, limestone, and sandstone.

Indian and other non-European refugees from colonial wars lived in these “vacant lands” that Anglo colonizers viewed as unfit.  Lumbees planted corn, vegetables, and grains, cultivated berries and grapes, and hunted and fished.  Beyond the swamps, they traveled short distances to extract turpentine in the pinelands owned by colonists.  As Lowery contends, working with colonists did not mean they accepted strangers.  They only wanted to return and hide in Drowning Creek with their kin.  Eventually, like their Anglo counterparts, Lumbees claimed individual ownership of these swampy lands and paid taxes.

In 1835, North Carolina disfranchised free people of color, and Lumbees sought salvation in Christianity and family ties.  After the Civil War, Lumbees faced de jure and de facto segregation that hardened racial lines between “white” and “colored,” all reinforced later in the century by the Supreme Court’s judgment in Plessey v. Ferguson.  Lumbees began to build their own unique community by creating separate schools, churches, and other institutions that kept continuous ties to their homeland.

In the early 1900s, Lumbees began to define their sense of place as Pembroke, a suffused town or homeplace that once had been foot trails and swamplands. However, most importantly, it was the name of the teacher training college for Indians, Pembroke State College, presently Pembroke University, located in Robeson County and belonging to the wider University of North Carolina system.  Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, multiple names plagued Lumbee identity; they struggled to hold on to their selfhood as they were called Croatan, Siouan Indians of Robeson County, Cherokee and Cheraw, and finally Lumbees, a name recognized by state and federal governments.

Lowery carefully delineates the multiple legal challenges Lumbees faced after Congress passed the Lumbee Act of 1956, failing to provide federal benefits but offering “limited federal acknowledgement.”  Some Lumbee leaders did not want their people dependent on services provided by state and federal governments.  This act has not been repealed.  Although many tribes became recognized as sovereign nations in the 1970s and 80s, Lumbees have been denied that process.

Undeterred, twenty-first century Lumbees have created a constitutional government based on the “inherent power of self-government of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina” (214). The first constitutional article declares kinship and place as defining features of the Lumbees.  Political wrangling over Lumbee federal recognition has continued—mainly from lobbyists representing other federally recognized tribes.  Lumbees have not made a treaty with the U.S. nor can they claim a reservation, yet they has existed as a coherent society for over 500 years.

Lowery’s book appeals to a wide audience, both general and scholarly.  Chapter intersections called “Interludes” enhance her well-written and well-researched narrative.  For example, after explaining her own experiences as an Indian in a predominantly white class, she pauses for an “Interlude” entitled: “What Are You?”  Lowery’s readers become thoroughly engaged in the story of why she is “Proud to be a Lumbee.”