Historian and First Peoples author Malinda Maynor Lowery (Lumbee) writes for us about her tribe’s federal recognition struggle and how recent moves by the Lumbee Tribal Council highlight the fact that every tribe, recognized or not, is still a political entity.
Who’s Pulling the Strings in Today’s Lumbee Recognition Process?
By Malinda Maynor Lowery
I’m a big fan of the Godfather (there are a lot of metaphors that explain Indian politics in those movies) and so recent events with Lumbee recognition have reminded me that someone else is always pulling the strings.
My book Lumbee Indians in the Jim Crow South (University of North Carolina Press 2010) explores federal recognition and identity formation between the 1870s and the 1950s, a critical period when the Lumbees’ formal political organization developed in the presence of brutal pressure from white supremacists at both local and federal levels. My community responded to this pressure by dividing into strategic factions, and each party developed its own way of dealing with the capricious and subjective identity definitions that Congress and the BIA articulated. These identity definitions revolved in part around stereotypes of Indians, but they also involved comparisons to African Americans. We had to convince outsiders that we were not black, and therefore worthy of separate recognition.
During this period, our political system developed essentially two tiers—a formal, elected leadership, and an informal, unelected leadership. The unelected leaders were the puppeteers, pulling the strings behind the scenes. They were often the most literate members of the community, the ones with the closest personal and political ties to whites, and they believed that they understood the “system” and could make it work for us. To a degree, walking this tightrope between black and white forced these brokers into political compromises that worked against our interests. But the brokers also had their own reasons for making these compromises; often they wanted to shore up their own power and authority within the Indian community by delivering on a promise, and they wanted to increase their clout with the white elites, locally and nationally, who were giving lip service to our recognition efforts.
What these leaders never grasped was that the more you squeeze out of the system, the more autonomy it squeezes out of you, and we are left with compromises that ultimately get us nowhere (the two previous instances of recognition, in 1938 and 1956, are cases in point). So how will it turn out this time?
In a recent surprise move in an unpublicized meeting, the Lumbee Tribal Council replaced our longtime attorney and lobbyist, Arlinda Locklear, with a casino development firm called Lewin International, LLC. Locklear had been working for 22 years on recognition, mostly for free. She is one of the best Indian law attorneys in the nation and the first Native woman to present oral arguments to the Supreme Court. (She won both times). Some say that Arlinda had been banging her head against a brick wall—the Eastern Band of Cherokees are spending millions to lobby against the bill, and since any Senator can put a hold on a bill, a Senator’s self-interest will trump the fairness of Lumbee recognition any day. Several leaders have said, for example, “we always thought the Senate would pass it because it’s the right thing to do, but they won’t. No one has worked harder than Arlinda. She needed help.”
Maybe they’re right, but there’s a hitch: the current bill before Congress prohibits gaming.
Apparently that provision was necessary to secure passage in the House of Representatives, which occurred in 2009. Congressman Christopher Shays (R-CT) is a powerful voice on Indian issues in the House. He is downright angry that tribes in his state have been so successful with gaming that now they actually have some political clout. In the 2007 debate on the Lumbee Bill (which also passed the House), Shays invoked old racist notions from the 1930s, echoing policymakers’ past fears of an onslaught of Indians who might gain more power than whites have: “You are letting the floodgate in,” he said. “I have opposed tribes in our State of Connecticut bypassing the process [by gaining recognition through Congress rather than the BIA]. If they meet the standard, they should become a tribe. If they don’t, they shouldn’t….[If] you have a State-recognized tribe, they are going to come and say, I am a State-recognized tribe. Make me a Federal-recognized tribe. Make me a sovereign nation. Give me all the benefits that true tribes that are federally recognized have.”
Shays knows as well as anyone that the federal government doesn’t make sovereign nations—federal law has clearly dictated that tribal sovereignty exists independently of the federal government. But Shays is playing politics—he leads a faction of the House that sees gaming as a threat to economies that benefit whites. Apparently, our Lumbee lobbyists calculated that in 2009, we wouldn’t be as lucky as we were in 2007. So the 2009 bill prohibited gaming. After the House passed the bill, it went to the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, which also approved it. Now it awaits a vote on the Senate floor.
So how can a casino development firm get a bill that prohibits gaming passed in the Senate? Apparently you can get anything done if you’re willing to pay off some Senators and you have the right connections. Our unelected leaders are currently calling in favors to convert Senate opponents, while I’ve been told that Lewin International has promised to get gaming back into the Senate version of the bill, get it passed, and send it to Nancy Pelosi, who, no doubt in exchange for something she wants, will make sure it passes the House. In return, Lewin gets the exclusive right to lobby on behalf of the tribe (according to the contract, even tribal representatives cannot speak to third parties on their own behalf). Lewin receives nothing if the current effort does not succeed by January 2011. But if it does, Lewin gets the right to develop and manage all the tribe’s economic development activities, both gaming and non-gaming. They stand to make a bundle in exchange for their lobbying services, if they are successful.
Personally, I am undecided about gaming. It has upsides and downsides for every tribe that has pursued it. And while I’m shocked that the Tribal Council would dismiss Arlinda Locklear after so many years of tireless work, and I admire her very much, I haven’t always agreed with the strategies she’s engaged. After all, the Lumbee tribe is no different than any other tribe, recognized or not—we are a political entity, and we will disagree with one another on important issues.
Many doors have to be opened and political puzzles untangled before the tribe can open a casino. Even if Lewin’s avowed strategy works, the Lumbee Constitution dictates that the Lumbee people must hold a referendum on gaming to proceed. Then, assuming the People say “yes” (not at all a foregone conclusion), the tribe has to negotiate a compact with the governor of North Carolina, and a governor can put off such negotiations indefinitely. The contract with Lewin specifies a hefty penalty of $35 million to the tribe if these benchmarks aren’t met by approximately 2018.
This recent shift in recognition strategies is not about gaming or recognition so much as it is about politics. Our community has not had an open and frank discussion about gaming or any of the economic decisions that will need to be made when and if we gain recognition. Rather than have that debate, our unelected leaders delegated it to openly self-interested outsiders. Why? Are they reluctant to share their power by educating their constituents? Or have we, the People been apathetic, not minding the henhouse and letting the foxes play?
In this deal with Lewin International, the elected leadership has simply been asked to rubber-stamp the decisions of the unelected leadership. This sequence of events leaves me, as a citizen of the Lumbee tribe, confused and disoriented. Why have elections if only a few people are going to make the crucial decisions anyway? What happened to transparency, operating in good faith, and informing your constituents about what you’re doing? Oh yeah, that doesn’t exist in the United States’ hallowed halls of government either. Maybe I’m naïve, or I expect too much. One Lumbee friend compared politicians to snakes when he said, “Anyone have a flashlight and a hoe?”
This style of political maneuvering adds up to one kind of nation-building, one that can only exist in our colonized state. Our autonomy diminishes as we walk a new tightrope, not between black and white but between poverty and wealth, or impotence and influence. The resulting hollow compromises show that the colonizers and the colonized are locked in a dysfunctional dance; we share a political system that actually threatens instead of nurtures sovereignty, on both sides. Lumbees have let this go on too long to simply claim that we are victims.
If we are to escape this condition, we must ask ourselves, where does the inherent sovereignty of the Lumbee people lie? Are we to forever walk a line that is drawn by outsiders, by those who want to take advantage of us, or are threatened by us, or just don’t care one way or another about justice? Perhaps we should “just disengage, and go back to the old ways,” as Tuscarora artist Jennifer Kreisberg suggested to me.
Perhaps we can better nurture our sovereignty by supporting leaders who reject the idea that power equals money, politics, and connections, and embrace the ancient notion that power is repentance, sharing, and love for self and community. “Servanthood over showmanship wins hearts,” says my pastor. Our humblest community members are the ones who nurture our sovereignty, not our self-styled leaders, whether elected or unelected.
Malinda Maynor Lowery (Lumbee) is an assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a native of Robeson County, North Carolina. Her book Lumbee Indians in the Jim Crow South: Race, Identity, and the Making of a Nation is now available from the University of North Carolina Press. Lowery will be speaking about her new book Tuesday, April 13th at 7 p.m. at the UNC-Pembroke Chancellor’s Residence in Pembroke, North Carolina.