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Lumbee Recognition Act Is Pandering To Win NC Votes Says Eastern Band Chief

Matt Bush
The Qualla Boundary is located in the mountains of Western North Carolina.

The Principal Chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians says both major party presidential candidates are pandering to another tribe in North Carolina in the final days of the election.

President Donald Trumpjoined Democratic nominee Joe Biden this weekin supporting a bill that would give the Lumbee tribe full federal recognition.  Eastern Band Principal Chief Richard Sneed calls that a play for votes in the crucial battle ground state of North Carolina.

“The whole thing has been politized that federal recognition has become for sale, for votes,” says Sneed.

The Lumbee are based in Robeson County, and have been fighting for full federal recognition since the federal government process was established in 1978. There are about 55,000 members of the tribe.

The U.S. Supreme Court first officially recognized the sovereign status of Native American tribes in the 1830s, but so far the Lumbee have only received partial recognition in 1956  – a status that does not come with any federal benefit such as inclusion in Bureau of Indian Affairs services or the opportunity to open a casino.  

By comparison, the Eastern Band was recognized in the late 1800s. The Qualla Boundary, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians land, was established in 1876. There are 574 federally recognized tribes in 37 states.

Sneed believes the Lumbee need to respect the official process which verifies a tribe’s status. He balks at any claim that this position is related to competition for the Eastern Band’s two casinos, currently the only two in North Carolina.

“As far as it goes with the Lumbee it’s a non-issue. From a market share perspective, they are too far away. So it’s a straw man argument,” says Sneed.  

It’s not guaranteed that the Lumbee would be able to open a casino if recognized.

It’s about 300 miles from the Qualla Boundary in Western North Carolina to Pembroke where the Lumbee are based. The Eastern Band is currently involved in a legal battle against a new casino being built much closer in the Charlotte suburbs by the South Carolina-based Catawba tribe. Sneed says their fight against that deal with the federal Department of the Interior, not the Catawba.

“The real argument is what we have filed in federal court which is that the Department of the Interior acted outside of its authority when it took that land into trust,” says Sneed.

The Catawba broke ground on that casino this summer, even though the legal battle over it continues.

Lilly Knoepp is Senior Regional Reporter for Blue Ridge Public Radio. She has served as BPR’s first fulltime reporter covering Western North Carolina since 2018. She is from Franklin, NC. She returns to WNC after serving as the assistant editor of Women@Forbes and digital producer of the Forbes podcast network. She holds a master’s degree in international journalism from the City University of New York and earned a double major from UNC-Chapel Hill in religious studies and political science.
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