“A lot of people don’t realize Natives are all around you; it’s like we’re hidden in plain sight.”
Brittany Hunt, a PhD student in curriculum and instruction at UNC Charlotte, speaks frankly about what it means to be Native. She answers questions about her background with a clear, serious voice and prideful eyes.
Hunt is a member of the Lumbee Tribe, the largest tribe in North Carolina and east of the Mississippi River. Its 60,000 members are concentrated in Robeson County near the Lumber River. The Lumbee name is well known in North Carolina, but beyond state borders, the tribe is largely unknown.
The federal government is in part culpable for this; it has denied federal recognition to the Lumbee Tribe since 1888. The 1956 Lumbee Act acknowledges the nation as Native but still precludes them from receiving benefits normally enjoyed by those tribes who are federally recognized. This means that although Lumbee people are Native according to their culture, birth certificates and language, they cannot claim their ethnicity on federal forms or job applications.
Hunt says, “Recognition is not about proving to the world that we’re Native because we already know and believe that we are. But it gives certain political advantages.”
These privileges include things like preference on applications, scholarships, service through the Indian Health Service and the right to operate a casino. Despite the benefits, there is disagreement within the Lumbee community about the importance of federal recognition.
“We have done a lot of things to deserve federal recognition, but we didn’t do these things in order to get recognized…it’s superficial,” explains junior architecture major, Samuel Woods.
Woods speaks softly and intentionally. He is passionate about activism within his tribe. “It’s important to check people on their stuff,” he explains, regarding misconceptions and stereotypes of Native culture.
To date, 573 tribes are federally recognized while 200 are not. The Cherokee are the only federally recognized tribe in North Carolina while the other seven only have state recognition. North Carolina recognized the Lumbee Tribe in 1885 when they were known as the Croatan. Part of why the federal government refuses to grant these benefits to the Lumbee people and so many other groups is because of ambiguity in their history.
As Hunt explains, “The government committed paper genocide against Natives and many ended up losing their heritage. The government requires you prove history on paper. They strip you of this history and then expect you to prove it with records.”
Some allege that the tribe originated from the Lost Colony of Roanoke, although Hunt says this has been disproved. According to the Lumbee website, they are an amalgamation of various Siouan, Algonquian and Iroquoian speaking tribes.
Hence, the federal government struggles to define who is “Native enough” in the Lumbee community and who deserves the benefits that accompany recognition.
Defining Lumbee, however, goes far beyond the purview of the government.
“It’s ironic that the government is trying to define being Native when if they felt at all what it’s like to be Native they would know it doesn’t have to do with blood. We don’t have a long known history in comparison to other tribes, but that does not mean we don’t have the same sense of identity,” says sophomore Biology major Soleil Maynor.
Maynor speaks openly and fervently about her tribe. Her thoughtful answers and small nods indicate that she wants you to listen to what she has to say.
“…and it kind of revalidates to me that race is a social construct.” she concludes.
One could define being Lumbee by its traditions. The tribe hosts a Lumbee homecoming each July for about 10,000 people. Religion is also extremely important for them; some maintain those that they practiced before colonization while many others are Christian.
For members of the tribe, it seems that the definition of Lumbee is simple. “If you’re raised in the Lumbee community, you know what it means to be Lumbee, and you are Lumbee.” explains Maynor.
In the 1920s, anthropologist Carl Seltzer attempted to define “Native” by measuring physical characteristics of the Lumbee people. He put pencils in people’s hair and concluded that if the pencil fell, that person was Native. He only found that 22 out of the 209 people he studied fit his definition of “Native.”
Hunt explains, “It’s almost impossible for us to be Native to outsiders because people have misconceptions of what Native looks like. They think it is long, straight dark hair, high cheekbones and brown eyes.”
Language is perhaps one of the most distinctive attributes of a Lumbee person. Although their original language is lost, in part due to its criminalization at one point, they speak a unique dialect. Many perceive it as a Southern accent, but as Hunt says, “It’s much more than that. When I hear a Lumbee speak, I would know she’s Lumbee.”
Maynor agrees. “I could overhear someone talking and know right away that they’re Lumbee.” she said.
Because the dialect is so strong, many Lumbee people learn to downplay their accents.
“I know that code switching is common, but it’s sad for me when [my accent] is perceived as dumb, even by people in the community. A lot of people don’t see it as a dialect; they see it as speaking incorrectly. My aunt has lived in Charlotte for over 30 years and she doesn’t speak in our dialect at all and sometimes she even corrects me.” said Maynor.
Lumbee people also extract much of their identity from their land. They are highly concentrated in Robeson County, which is among the most dangerous and impoverished in the state. Because the area creates such a strong sense of community, it can be difficult to leave.
Woods says that 75 percent of his friends were Lumbee before coming to UNC Charlotte, where he only knows a few other Native people.
“I definitely feel like one percent of the population at UNC Charlotte and I definitely want to find a Native community here so I don’t have to feel like an outsider.” added Maynor.
The University does not report how many Lumbee students it has, but Native students do in fact make up less than one percent of the student body.
Discrimination is unfortunately another shared experience of Lumbee people, especially for those who leave their majority-Native hometowns.
Maynor describes her experience of racism as, “when people ask or assume my ethnicity, and then act surprised and say ‘oh that’s so cool’ like it’s a novelty…I am the opposite of foreign because I am indigenous.”
Despite obstacles their nation has faced, the Lumbee people have not let the federal government or anyone else define them. They have shared successes, like opening the nation’s first Native university, and they have fostered a close-knit community, all without federal recognition.
When it comes down to it, Hunt says, “Lumbee is language; Lumbee is culture; Lumbee is family and Lumbee is land.”