Who Are the Lumbee Indians?

by Chris Deziel

Although the Lumbee are the largest Native American tribe east of the Mississippi, and the ninth largest in the nation, the United States government does not recognize them as an Indian tribe. Despite this, the home state of the Lumbee tribe -- North Carolina -- has recognized this tribe since 1885; in 2014, the tribe had 55,000 members. The lack of federal recognition stems from the mixture of bloodlines in the tribe, some of which may connect to the earliest European colonists.

North Carolina Natives

The Lumbee reside in Robeson, Hoke, Cumberlan and Scotland counties in North Carolina, and according to the tribal website, they have been there since the 1700s. They take their name from the Lumbee River, which runs through Robeson County, and their economic, political and cultural center is Pembroke, which is also in Robeson County. The Lumbee tribe has its own political system and constitution. In 1887, the state of North Carolina established an Indian training school in Pembroke, and it grew to become one of the 16 institutions that make up the state's university system.

The Lumbee Language

The Lumbee originally spoke an Algonkian language known as Croatan or Pamlico, but they interacted extensively with other tribes and also adopted their languages. In addition, they spoke English, adopting the language partly because they needed to communicate in matters of trade and partly because they intermarried with the Europeans. They developed a distinctive English dialect known as "Lumbee English," which shows the influence of Scottish and Irish speech patterns. Evidence indicates that the Lumbee have been speaking English since 1730; because they developed their unique form of English, their original language fell into disuse and all but disappeared.

The Legend of Roanoke Colony

In 1587, a group of English colonists established Roanoke Colony, which was then the second European settlement on the east coast, on an island on the Outer Banks of what is now North Carolina. The governor of Roanoke Colony, John White, returned to England that year, and when he came back three years later, all the colonists were gone. There was no sign of a fight -- just an enigmatic carving in a tree that spelled the word "Croatoan." While there is no direct evidence to support the belief, many Lumbees, including historian Adolph Dial, believe they are the descendants of the settlers, who "disappeared" because they were incorporated into the tribe.

Cultural Diversity

The belief that the Roanoke settlers did join the Lumbee tribe helps explain the degree to which the tribe became Anglicized, and the fact that they are strongly Protestant. The cultural diversity worked in favor of the tribe during the 1800s, because they were one of the few tribes that weren't required to relocate. That same diversity is the reason why the United States Congress has failed to fully recognize the tribe. The Lumbee Act, which Congress passed in 1956, conditionally recognized the Lumbee as an Indian tribe, but it withheld the benefits the federal government accords other tribes.

About the Author

A love of fundamental mysteries led Chris Deziel to obtain a bachelor's degree in physics and a master's degree in humanities. A prolific carpenter, home renovator and furniture restorer, Deziel has been active in the building and home design trades since 1975. As a landscape builder, he helped establish two gardening companies.

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