Sunday, December 30, 2018

The Lumbee

Henry Berry Lowrie

The Lumbee are the largest Indian tribe east of the Mississippi, numbering 35000 registered members and another 30000 who claim membership, according to Andrew Lawler, in his book, "The Secret Token." See posts: The Lost Colony, Nov. 11, 2018, and Virginia Dare, Nov. 21, 2018. In this fascinating book Lawler tells the story of the Roanoke Colony, the first British colony in the new world, and how its mysterious disappearance has fostered spooky stories of alien abduction, demon possession and fantasies justifying white supremacy.

Lawler devotes one chapter of his book to the Lumbee Indian tribe, who have incorporated into their traditions a completely different twist to the Roanoke story. According to the Lumbee, the Roanoke settlers didn’t disappear at all. Rather, they were rescued by the Croatoan Indians, the ancestors of the Lumbee. Today Virginia Dare is referred to as the Lumbee’s mother, and Lumbee sons are named Manteo in honor of the Croatoan warrior who returned to England with the first Roanoke party and then came back with the settlers to intercede for them with his people.

This tradition has served the Lumbee well over the years. During the Civil War a male member of the tribe was executed for refusing to dig a trench alongside African-American slaves, and after the war his son led a rebellion against the Ku Klux Klan and it’s persecution of people of color. The man, Henry Berry Lowrie, was never caught. In fact, he once robbed a bank of the reward money collected for his capture.

During the period of Indian Removal, the notorious Trail of Tears, the Lumbee were left in place, probably because white settlers didn’t covet their swampy land.

Later, in the 1880’s, a North Carolina legislator, Hamilton McMillan, wrote a book based on the tradition that the Lumbee had rescued the Roanoke settlers. In his book,
McMillan noted that many of the Lumbee had names similar to those of the settlers, for instance Berry, the name of the leader of the rebellion. He also cited a story of uncertain origin, of an Indian tribe found during the colonial period who spoke English. He then pointed out similarities of the dialects of contemporaneous Lumbee to “Old Saxon English.” As a result of McMillan’s theories, legislation was passed giving the Lumbee recognition as a tribe, voting rights, and better schools. He also made Democrats of them, insuring his tenure in the state legislature.

The Lumbee have a river named for them, the Lumber River, and a branch of the University of N. Carolina is located in the town of Pembroke, in the heart of Lumbee country. While recognized in N. Carolina, the Lumbee are not recognized by the federal government, not surprising since recognition would involve providing special benefits to tribal members.  

The origins of the tribe are vague. The word Lumbee comes from a Siouan word meaning “dark water.” They are located in an area that was originally swampy and remote, which became a refuge for escaped slaves, poor whites, and mixed blood people of color. It was a place where they could survive by hunting and fishing, and where they could escape persecution.

Efforts to link the Lumbee to the colonists have frustrated historians and archeologists, since there are few written records, and no archaeological trace of the colonists. Tribal members are suspicious and reluctant to participate in DNA studies, partly because of fears that it might jeopardize their continuing efforts to obtain federal recognition, but limited studies have been done and they are surprising. They show a high percentage Northern European and African ancestry, but no Native American!

Lawler quotes an Episcopal priest who claims Lumbee ancestry. “I am Proudly Lumbee,” he said , “but recognize that it is an identity constructed by my ancestors to secure a better deal for themselves in the Jim Crow South.”

I think he has every right to be proud.