Lumbee origins: a miraculous, tangled story


“The miracle,” says Dr. Stan Knick about the history of the Lumbee Indians, “is that there are any Lumbees left at all.”

Stan KnickIn a campus lecture attended by more than 50, Dr. Knick, director of the Native American Resource Center at UNC Pembroke, discussed the “Origins of the Lumbee.” Many of the students in the audience were hearing the story for the first time

The story is at times a maze, full of myth and misinformation from both modern and ancient times. One student said that an Internet site he visited stated that Lumbees were a mix of Cherokees and slaves.

“The word Cherokee has been around here a lot, and this University was once named the Cherokee Normal School,” Dr. Knick said. “I can’t find sustained historical contact between the Lumbee and the Cherokee until the 1970s when they started attending powwows together, and certainly nothing in colonial times.”

Dr. Knick also dismissed the idea that the Lumbee name was invented in the 1950s.

“A lot of people – even some Native Americans - think the word ‘Lumbee’ is a made-up word,” he said. “It is an older word than we know. It is the ancient name of the river.”

“If the river was called the Lumbee, then it seems extremely likely that the people who lived by the Lumbee were also Lumbee,” Dr. Knick said.

Eastern Woodland Indians groups, the Lumbee’s ancestors, often shared their names with geographic features. “It’s obvious,” Dr. Knick said.

The first written story of Lumbee origins stems from what may have been the first physical contact by white men, who found approximately 50 extended families living along the Lumbee River. In a diary notation describing that contact, the locals were labeled “a mixt crewe.”

The Lumbee probably confused and astonished the first whites. They farmed, wore European clothes and spoke English, although it was an older form than these mid-18th century visitors used, Dr. Knick said.

The scholar agrees the Lumbee were a diverse group, but he said the first contact with Europeans happened long before.

“It was a gradual process that took 200-300 years, but it was not necessarily a first-hand contact,” Dr. Knick said. “Disease spread over long distances before there was actual contact with any white person.”

European diseases, such as smallpox, swept through the 250,000 or so Indians in Eastern North Carolina, killing as many as nine out of 10 in some areas. It radically changed the “good and balanced life” that existed among the many settled Indian villages.

“It left them with two choices, disappear - and most Indian people in North Carolina went that route,” Dr. Knick said. The other option was for “isolated pockets or remnants to hole up and get out of the way.”

The swamps along the Lumbee River were just such an isolated place, and the diverse remnants came together, forming a new culture.

“If the Lumbees were to survive, it would be by adaptation, and they were extremely adaptable folk,” he said. “Their language had to change.”

Dr. Knick said diverse remnants, with many cultures and languages, formed new societies and adopted English as their common language.

“The solution was to speak English, the language of trade, the language of the new establishment,” he said. “An older form of English was spoken because contact had been going on for a long time.”

The Lumbee dialect, which linguists compare to the language spoken in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, led Dr. Knick to one of the most famous stories of the Lumbee origin – the Lost Colony theory.

“I am still looking for that gold coin dated 1585,” he said.