“Indians … tell their history knowing that the truth of stories shifts, even as their constituent elements, the facts, remain constant. In turn, some facts are better remembered than others; some are still useful, some no longer useful. Any community, every nation, tells parts and leaves other parts untold, and no one can tell it all,” writes Malinda Maynor Lowery in the early pages of her new book about the Lumbee Indians. “The needs and uses of history are ever changing, like water. Water does not respect politics or politeness; it goes where it must.”
Lowery, a Lumbee herself, as well as an associate professor of history and director of the Center for the Study of the American South at the UNC-Chapel Hill, gives us an important and insightful book in “The Lumbee Indians: An American Struggle.” One of its lessons is that North Carolina’s Lumbee Indians have persevered over the centuries to tell their history their way, not the way dominant white culture in their homeland tries to define it.
Most North Carolinians have a woefully incomplete understanding of the Lumbees’ story. We may have heard speculation that they are descendants of Roanoke Island’s fabled Lost Colony. We may know that although the Lumbees are concentrated in Robeson and its neighboring counties, they have sizable communities in other places, including Greensboro. We know UNC Pembroke started out as a Lumbee college. If we are old enough, we may recall the time back in 1988 when Lumbees held hostages at gunpoint in the offices of the Robesonian newspaper, making it into the national news. That may bring to mind other instances of violence involving Lumbees.
And, of course, there have been the news stories over the years about the Lumbees’ unsuccessful and continuing efforts to gain federal recognition as a tribe.
Lowery’s book fills in the huge gaps in our understanding in a way that also makes readers stop and think about the broader history of our country, with all its complexities and contradictions.
The Lumbees are the largest Indian tribe east of the Mississippi River, but they have not been acknowledged as a tribe by the federal government, for a variety of reasons that Lowery explains.
One reason is that unlike many other tribes, the Lumbees settled into the swamps of southeastern North Carolina, adopting many of the ways of the white settlers who were taking over the area, rather than moving to a reservation. At times, some Lumbees weren’t even sure they wanted federal recognition. Even the name they call themselves has changed over time, according to Lumbees’ perception of which designation would help them preserve their identity.
Lowery makes a good case that politicians and others have tried to determine whether the Lumbees are “real” Indians and a “real” tribe with “pure blood,” using criteria other than those the Lumbees themselves use. To the Lumbees, the important ties are to place and family.
Lowery’s well-documented history shows how these remarkable people have preserved their own sense of self through the coming of European settlers; the American Revolution, the Civil War and more recent wars; Jim Crow, segregation and the civil rights movement; poverty and the loss of much of their land; and the rise of the drug trade and the “war on drugs.”
Through all of this, she shows, the Lumbees have survived, and now, in the 21st century, they have hammered out their own constitutional government.
A historian, Lowery draws on extensive research. Her account is measured and thoughtful, not shying away from the darker sides of the Lumbees’ story.
Some of the detailed history requires careful reading; this is not a romanticized story.
Because Lowery is also a Lumbee, she has included personal insights and reminiscences that bring the history to life.
This is an important book, one that should help people better understand not only the Lumbee Indians but also our still-young nation, as we look at the stories Americans tell ourselves through different eyes.