Because It Is Right

Stanley Knick, Ph.D. (Retired)
The Museum of the Southeast American Indian
The University of North Carolina at Pembroke
Pembroke, North Carolina 28372
Not to be reproduced in any manner without written permission from the author.


Why should the Lumbee be recognized by the federal government?  There are several possible answers to this question, based on various lines of evidence and reasoning.  Here I want to reflect upon an anthropological perspective which points to the interpretation that the Lumbee should be afforded full recognition by the U.S. government.

The archaeological record in the land of the Lumbee appears to be a very rich record indeed, although it has just begun to be read.  Judging from the series of projectile point types found in sites in Robeson County (from Clovis-like through Clarksville), Native American occupation of the county seems to extend back, and come into the present, as far here as anywhere else in North Carolina (Knick 1988).  There are no obvious gaps in the artifact collection from Paleo-Indian times through early, middle and late Archaic, early, middle and late Woodland times, and into the Historic period.  Indian people have always been here.

Review of this archaeological record reveals several important things in addition to the apparently consistent occupation.  One of these is the presence of diverse cultural influences.  This is especially important given that arguments against Lumbee recognition have frequently been based on the assertion that the Lumbee represent a post-Columbian amalgamation of Indian people from various sources (including Siouan, Iroquoian and Algonkian people).  However, archaeological evidence collected here suggests that diverse cultural influences have been fairly common for a much longer time.

Beginning in the middle Archaic period (ca. 6,000 to 8,000 years ago), relatively unusual artifacts (i.e., the Eva-like basal notched projectile point) began to appear among the more predictable local artifact assemblages.  The presence of stone (and later, ceramic) artifacts which suggest cultural exchange from elsewhere continued through the archaeological record.  Artifacts more commonly found in Florida, Tennessee and Virginia, on the outer Coastal Plain as well as in the Piedmont and the mountains, have been found alongside the more expected artifacts here in Robeson County.  This suggests that this region has for thousands of years been a zone of cultural interaction (Mathis and Gardner 1986; Knick 1992).

Thus we should not be surprised to find that Native American people living here at the time of European contact would be joined by remnants of other tribes seeking to avoid the onslaught of European culture and epidemic diseases.  But the archaeological record indicates that there were already indigenous people living in the land of the Lumbee.

Another important thing revealed in the local archaeological record is the presence of contact period sites, where late  prehistoric artifacts are found alongside early Historic artifacts.  These sites suggest that Native Americans lived here during the transition from prehistoric times to Historic times.  The descendants of those Native American people, today's Lumbee, trace their historical and genealogical records back to those same early Historic times (before 1750 A.D.) in the same locations (Pierce et al 1987).  Again, there is no apparent gap in the record.

Yet another significant thing revealed in the archaeological record here concerns the number of sites, and what that suggests about the size of the pre-Columbian Native American population.  In the Phase I reconnaissance, although less than one percent of the county was examined, three hundred and fourteen previously-unrecorded archaeological sites were documented.  Thus, sites were encountered at a density rate of one site per eleven acres sampled, a very dense distribution.  Even though that reconnaissance was conducted from an intuitive sampling approach, this still suggests that Robeson County was widely utilized by Native Americans and that the pre-Columbian population could have been sizable.  Not only have Indians always been here, enjoying cultural influences from elsewhere in an apparently consistent occupation, but there was also a substantial population.

One of the greatest controversies about the Lumbee centers around who lived where, and when.  There is a widespread idea among some Indian and non-Indian people that Native Americans moved into what is now Robeson County and settled here along the Lumbee (Lumber) River sometime after Columbus.  To a certain extent, that is true.

Historical references indicate that some Indian people did move in from other locations (for a summary, see Pierce et al 1987; also Dial and Eliades 1975).  These references point to movements of people from the Siouan language family (i.e., Cheraw), Algonkian language family (Hatteras) and Iroquoian language family (Tuscarora).  These movements into the region happened between the time of John White's \"Lost Colony\" (1580s) and the Civil War (1860s), and apparently consisted of fairly small numbers of people.  The problem arises if one stops thinking at that point.

One shortcoming of this \"Indians-moved-in-and-settled\" theory is that it overlooks important evidence.  The theory implies, and some people seem now to believe, that the land of the Lumbee was a vacuum, that no one was here until Indian folks from elsewhere \"moved-in-and-settled.\"  This is simply not consistent with the archaeological evidence.

Archaeological research shows that this area was already occupied by Native Americans before the reported movements of Cheraw, Hatteras and Tuscarora (and possibly others).  In addition to the presence of Indian people during all the other named periods of prehistory, there was clearly a late prehistoric occupation here along the Lumbee River.  This is illustrated by the presence of at least thirty-one archaeological sites with late Woodland artifacts.  Artifacts at these sites suggest Indian occupation of the county during the time period between 1200 and 1750 A.D.

Thus there must have been Native Americans here before anybody else could have \"moved-in-and-settled.\"  So why have those indigenous occupants so often been overlooked?

One reason is that the necessary archaeological research had not been done until relatively recently.  Another reason is that, in the absence of knowledge of the archaeology of the region, it was easy to rely on historical references as the only explanation for a large Native American population here in the twentieth century.  But we must not forget those original late prehistoric Native American inhabitants, because their descendants, along with those of the Cheraw, Hatteras and Tuscarora, are almost certainly still with us.

As more archaeological investigations are conducted in the land of the Lumbee it is possible that we will encounter an undisturbed site, or sites, which will tell us more about the connections between those late Woodland inhabitants and the living Lumbee people.  This is an excellent reason to do more archaeology here, as well as a reason to strive to keep sites from being destroyed by development and construction.  Someday it may be possible to conduct controlled scientific excavation at an undisturbed late Woodland village site here in the land of the Lumbee.

One argument used against Lumbee recognition has been based on the assertion that the word \"Lumbee\" is an invented word, that it comes from the word \"lumber\" (as in \"Lumberton\").  Some people take this assumption from the belief that the U.S. government first formally accepted the word in 1956.  Opponents of federal recognition for the Lumbee have used this line of thought as one of their main arguments.  They seem to use it to mean that the word \"Lumbee\" didn't really exist before the 1950s, and thus that the Lumbee people didn't either.  But this is far from the whole story.  What is the truth about the word \"Lumbee?\"

The earliest written reference I have been able to find to the word \"Lumbee\" is in the 1888 work of Hamilton Macmillan.  Did he invent the word?  What he wrote (in a discussion of the geographical extent of Indians in North Carolina in the 1730s) was this:  \"These Indians [had] roads connecting the distant settlements with their principal seat on the Lumbee, as the Lumber River was then called.\"

Why would Macmillan say this?  Was he trying to convince the world that the Indians of Robeson County ought to be called Lumbee?  If that had been his intention, then we might expect him to lean heavily on the word \"Lumbee\" as the original name of the river in order to strengthen his case that the people should also be called Lumbee.  But that is not what Macmillan was trying to do.

Macmillan wanted to convince the world that the Indians of Robeson County ought to be called Croatan.  The bill he drafted for the North Carolina General Assembly called for establishment of the Croatan Indian Normal School (which would eventually become The University of North Carolina at Pembroke).  In his statement about the ancient name of the Lumbee River, he was only repeating what he was told by Indian elders of the day.  These elders in the 1880s had probably been taught when they were young  that the original word was Lumbee, which suggests that the word had been in use earlier than anybody in the 1880s could remember.   This would seem to make \"Lumbee\" a very old word.

Other writers around the turn of the century tell us of this same oral history.  Angus McLean wrote in the 1880s (published in McPherson 1915) that when \"...white settlers first arrived they found located on the waters of the Lumbee, as Lumber River was then called, a tribe of Indians speaking broken English....\"  Like Macmillan, McLean had nothing to gain from the use of the word \"Lumbee.\"  O. M. McPherson, an Indian Agent for the U.S. government, wrote that \"...the Lumber River was anciently called the Lumbee....  The Lumbee River is a branch of the Pedee and the similarity of the names would suggest the same origin.  All these small Siouan tribes were originally parts of, or confederated with, the Cheraws (1915: 23).\"

McPherson concluded that the Indians of Robeson County were of predominantly Siouan origins.  This now seems to come much closer to the truth than McLean's conclusion (he thought they were Cherokee).  But neither Macmillan, McLean nor McPherson had any special investment in the word \"Lumbee.\"  They were just repeating what they had been told  --  not that the word \"Lumbee\" was recently derived from the word \"lumber\" as some people nowadays want us to believe, but that the original name of the river was Lumbee.

Another example of use of the word \"Lumbee\" before the federal government recognized the name in 1956 comes from the \"Lumbee Tattler.\"  This was a yearbook produced at Pembroke State College (another former name of The University).  Were the local Native American students who wrote the \"Lumbee Tattler\"  and gave it that name in 1941 trying in some way to force the name Lumbee on the people?  Could it be true that \"Lumbee\" was a word from within the Indian community, not one planted on it by outsiders such as \"Croatan\" and \"Cherokee\" had been?

If it is true that Lumbee is the original name of the river along which the people lived, then it might be reasonable to conclude that Lumbee was also the original name of the indigenous people of this place.  This seems especially true in light of the fact that several other Eastern Siouan tribes who lived in the general region also shared their names with the rivers along which they lived (i.e., Santee, Wateree, Catawba and others; cf. Powell 1966 and Taukchiray and Kasakoff 1992).  Whatever the ultimate truth may be about the word \"Lumbee,\" one thing is certain  --  we seldom arrive at the truth by looking at only a part of the evidence.

As the effects of European colonization swept across the Carolinas in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, almost everything in Robeson County changed.  Population changed, drastically reduced by epidemics.  Language changed, whole lexicons disappearing as Indian tribes merged and/or vanished.  Culture changed, overwhelmed by contact with the outside world.  But some things did not change  --  one was the will of the people to hold onto their Indian identity.  Another was the word, sometimes unspoken but never forgotten, Lumbee.

Population changed.  Before the coming of Europeans there were  a great many Native American people living in the Carolinas, as is indicated by the number of late prehistoric archaeological sites which have already been documented in every county.  But European diseases such as smallpox quickly moved in epidemic fashion across the land.

In the 1580s, when he and his comrades traveled to villages near the soon-to-be \"Lost Colony\" at Roanoke Island, Thomas Harriot recorded that many Native people died immediately after his visit.  He wrote: \"...within a few days after our departure...the people began to die very fast, and many in short space; in some towns about twenty, in some forty, in some sixty, and in one six score [one hundred and twenty], which in truth was very many in respect of their numbers...; the disease [was] also so strange, that they neither knew what it was, nor how to cure it... (Harriot 1972:28).\"

John Lawson, who traveled extensively among the Indians of the Carolinas, estimated that by 1705 the Indian population had already been reduced in epidemics by five-sixths (83%) everywhere within two hundred miles of white settlements (Lawson 1967).  This would encompass all Indians between the Charleston and Jamestown colonies, including those in the Robeson County area.  By 1738, similar population decimation by epidemics had reached all the way to the Cherokee in the mountains (Adair 1775).

As the conquest of America continued, one last resort of many declining tribes was to coalesce with remnants of other tribes in isolated areas.  One such geographically isolated area was the land of the Lumbee, in what came to be known to the Indians of the early 1800s as \"the Settlement (Evans 1971).\"

Language changed.  Situated as it was near the geographical interface of three language families (Algonkian, Iroquoian and Siouan; Phelps 1983), \"the Settlement\" was a place where Indian people speaking different languages came together.  As small remnant groups, sometimes as few as a single extended family, joined the pre-existing Lumbee community at the Settlement, old language barriers began to melt away.  With only a few members of these groups left after the massive epidemics, whole languages disappeared.

Encouraged by the desire not to have to learn the language of a traditional opponent (such as a Siouan speaker learning an Iroquoian language); encouraged by missionaries who promised the Indians an English-speaking God who would protect the people from epidemic diseases; and encouraged by an increasing need to trade with Europeans for products only available in English, the Indian people of the Settlement quickly adopted English.  It became, as they say in West Africa, the lingua franca, the common language of trade.

In the process, all that would remain of the Lumbee language was the word itself: Lumbee.  This would be true of many other Carolina Native languages (i.e., Machapunga, Coree, etc.)  By the mid-1700s when non-Indians began to establish permanent settlements in Robeson County, the Indians were already speaking a kind of broken English (at least they spoke it to their new European neighbors) (Dial and Eliades 1975).

Culture changed.  A part of the acculturation process for Native Americans all over the Eastern U.S. was the disappearance  (or at least submergence) of externally visible elements of culture.  Many of these things are what Americans think of as being \"all there is\" to Indian culture: clothing, dance, language, architecture and so on.  In the land of the Lumbee during the early Historic period, many of these outward cultural elements vanished from sight because it was safer to get along with the dominant culture without those elements.

Especially following the Tuscarora and Cheraw Wars (1711 - 1715), and the other Indian wars preceding the American Revolution (Lee 1968), simply being an Indian in North Carolina was dangerous.  Indians were killed or driven off their lands just for being non-white; for being in the way of \"progress.\"  Thus finding a place where other Indian people were  --  a geographically isolated place where there was a sense of community, of togetherness, of Indian culture  --  was very important.  And there is much more to culture than its external elements.  Culture is at its core a system of learned and shared meanings  --  ways of thinking, ways of relating to people and the universe.

When the Scots and Irish came to Robeson County to stay, the Indians already had many European trade goods, including metal tools, and were getting on with the business of making a living for their families as farmers.  They had been farmers before the white men came, and they could farm a living right along if given the chance.  Some elements of the old culture did not change much.

One of the traditional elements of culture that did not change is that sense of personal and community identity to which Lumbee people have so fiercely held.  They have always known they were Indians.  Whenever people from the outside world came to visit or to stay, it was always with the knowledge that these people were Indians in their hearts and in their outlook.  The elders knew.  They taught the children.

Another element of traditional Indian culture that survived is the great importance of kinship.  It is very common to find several generations of Lumbee people living in close proximity, on the same land or \"home place.\"  Within this extended family, there is a network of sharing, a support base.  Extremely few Lumbee people go hungry or homeless for long, because there is always someone to whom they can turn, some part of the kinship network on which they can depend.  One of the first things Lumbees who don't know each other ask is: \"Who are your people?\"  This is a way to situate folks in a known network of families and clans (commonly called \"sets\" among modern Lumbees).

Another surviving element of traditional culture is the central role of spirituality.  One of the first things noticed by European travelers in the \"New World\" was the great importance of religion.  This traditional Indian kind of spirituality cannot easily be separated from the other, more commonplace, elements of culture.  Church is not only pervasive among the Lumbee as a spiritual matter; it defines social and economic matters, and influences political matters.  Despite the fact that Christianity generally replaced traditional Indian religion during European conquest, spirituality itself continues to be an integral part of  the Lumbee universe, and a more broadly experienced phenomenon than the common religion of mainstream society.

Yet another element of traditional Indian culture that survives today is found in the realm of health.  There are still a number of Lumbee people, especially elders, who have knowledge of herbal remedies passed down for generations.  Arthur Barlowe in the late sixteenth century, and John Lawson in the early eighteenth century, noted that sassafras was a common treatment among the Indians of the Carolinas (Corbett 1953; Lawson 1967).  A study in the mid-1980s of health among a large sample of Lumbee people revealed that sassafras was still the most commonly used herbal remedy (Knick 1986).  There are and always have been specialists in traditional healing in the Lumbee community (for example, one elder who passed away recently was widely known for his ability to treat effectively an extensive list of ailments, from hypertension to arthritis to cancer; see Croom 1983; Wall and Arden 1990).

As the conquest of America advanced from 1524 to the American Revolution, Carolina's Indian people were expelled from their homes, sometimes enslaved, frequently abused (Evans 1971).  The tendency of Indian people to coalesce into new communities  --  to adopt Indian people from other decimated tribes, to hold onto their identity as Indians and not to surrender it even though they had to speak English and dress in the European style to survive  --  this tendency resulted in the presence of the Lumbee community today.  Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the Lumbee is that they are still here at all.  Given all that they have been subjected to by the forces of history, it is a miracle that there are any Lumbee people left.

Why should the Lumbee be recognized by the federal government?  There are many reasons.  They should be recognized because this is their ancestral land; they have always been here.  They should be recognized because their occupation of this land has been consistent, as is shown in the archaeological, historical and genealogical records.  They should be recognized because their name is as old as the river's name.  They should be recognized because despite epidemics and wars, disenfranchisement and oppression, they are still here.  They should be recognized because they have held onto their Indian identity, their sense of who they are, when it would have been easier to leave all that behind.  They should be recognized because even though they no longer speak their core ancestral language, they still remember its name.  They should be recognized because they have persisted in the culture of the heart, in holding onto what it means to be Lumbee.  And there are many other reasons.

But in the final analysis, and in view of all the evidence, they should be recognized because it is right.


References Cited

Adair, J.   1775  The History of the American Indians... Edward & Charles Dilly; London.

Corbett, D.L.   1953  Explorations, Descriptions and Attempted Settlements of Carolina, 1584-   1590.  State Department of Archives and History; Raleigh.

Croom, E.   1983  Medicinal Plants of the Lumbee Indians.  University Microfilms International;    Ann Arbor.

Dial, A. and D. Eliades   1975  The Only Land I Know.  Indian Historian Press; San Francisco.

Evans, W.M.   1971  To Die Game. Louisiana State University Press; Baton Rouge.

Harriot, T.   1972  A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia.  Dover     Publications; New York.

Knick, S.   1986  Growing Up Down Home: Health and Growth in the Lumbee Nation. Pembroke    Community Workshop Press; also University Microfilms International; Ann Arbor.

 1988  Robeson Trails Archaeological Survey: Reconnaissance in  Robeson County.     Pembroke State University Printing Office;  Pembroke.

 1992  Along The Trail: A Reader About Native Americans.  Pembroke State University    Printing Office;  Pembroke.

Lawson, J.   1967  A New Voyage to Carolina. Edited by H. Lefler; University of North Carolina    Press; Chapel Hill.

Lee, L.   1968  Indian Wars in North Carolina, 1663 - 1763.  NC Division of Archives and    History; Raleigh.

Macmillan, H.  1888  Sir Walter Raleigh's Lost Colony.  Advance Press;  Wilson.

Mathis, M. and P. Gardner  1986  Archaeological survey of the proposed North Carolina Indian    Cultural Center, Robeson County, NC.  Ms on file at Office of State Archaeology.

McPherson, O.  1915  Indians of North Carolina. 63rd U.S. Congress, Document 677; U.S.    Government Printing Office; Washington.

Phelps, D.   1983  Archaeology of the North Carolina coast and Coastal Plain: problems and    hypotheses.  In, The Prehistory of North Carolina: An Archaeological Symposium (M. Mathis and J. Crow, eds.); NC Division of Archives and History;  Raleigh.

Pierce, J., C. Hunt-Locklear, W. White and J. Campisi   1987   Lumbee Federal Recognition Petition.  Lumbee River Legal Services; Pembroke.

Powell, J.W.   1966  Indian Linguistic Families of America North of Mexico (P. Holder, ed.).    University of Nebraska Press; Lincoln.

Taukchiray, W. and A. Kasakoff   1992  Contemporary Native Americans in South Carolina. In,    Indians of the Southeastern United States in the Late 20th Century (A. Paredes, ed.). University of Alabama Press; Tuscaloosa.

Wall, S. and H. Arden   1990  Wisdomkeepers. Beyond Words Publishing; Hillsboro, Oregon.


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