Photo: Mark Wilson (Getty Images)

On Wednesday, seemingly out of nowhere, Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina published a scathing column in the Charlotte Observer headlined, “Cherokee Indians are bullying other NC tribes.”

The ensuing column took the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians to task for a number of issues. The main peg Burr hammered home concerned EBCI “doing everything in their power” to stop the Catawba Nation, located within the borders of South Carolina, from acquiring land for a casino in North Carolina. Burr also raged about EBCI blocking the Lumbee Tribe’s attempts at gaining federal recognition and a specific instance in which the tribe successfully tried “to take land from their own tribal members.”

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This is A Lot, even if you happen to be acclimated to the nuances of North Carolina politics and various Native-specific legal issues. But it’s all extremely important, both to these tribes and to the larger history of U.S. politicians entering the fray on Indian Country issues, so let’s slow things down. Then, maybe, you can understand just what the hell the senator is trying to say.


Before we go any further, it’s necessary to make a couple crucial distinctions, starting with the difference between state and federally recognized tribes.

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The EBCI is the only federally recognized tribe in North Carolina. The tribal nation is descended from the Cherokee people who resisted the forced removal by the United States military—commonly known as the Trail of Tears—to a reservation in Oklahoma in 1838. The Eastern Band, separate from the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, was federally recognized in 1868. Similarly, the Catawba Nation is the only federally recognized tribe in South Carolina. But the Lumbee Tribe—like my own tribe, the Sappony—are one of the Tar Heel State’s seven state-recognized tribes.

This is a result of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, housed within the Department of the Interior, declining to approve the applications of the Lumbee or the other six tribes for federal recognition. (You can read more about that legal process here.) What this subsequently means is that, while the people of the Lumbee and other tribes have occupied the land that is now known as Virginia and North Carolina for centuries prior to the colonizers’s arrival, they are not allowed to engage in the land-into-trust process to form their own reservation, and they are not provided the services of the Indian Health Service, among other federal programs. Moreover, it prevents them from legally establishing themselves as a sovereign nation.

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As land reclamation is one of the currently available forms of reparations for Indigenous bands, this is a major sticking point for state tribes seeking federal recognition. (And yes, it should feel more than a little askew that, after surviving waves of violence and sickness and assimilation, tribes are forced to turn to the federal government responsible for said attacks for recognition, but that’s the reality of the situation.)

The Lumbee attained state recognition in 1885, which was soon followed by state-allocated funding (from the already underfunded Department of Negro Education pool) for a school of their own. As the era of Jim Crow calcified through legislation, the Native Americans in North Carolina were segregated in the same fashion as African-Americans, with separate schools, hospital wings, cemeteries, movie theater sections, and more all being cordoned off to serve the Native population.

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Starting in the 1960s, the Lumbee Tribe began calling upon the United States federal government to recognize them as a sovereign tribal nation. But for the past six decades, those efforts have failed repeatedly, despite constant attempts to convince Congress and the Interior that they have a rightful claim to the land that sits in Robeson County. This is relevant because in his op-ed, Burr argued that the Eastern Band has repeatedly attempted to foil the Lumbee’s applications out of the financial incentive to maintain a monopoly on the gaming industry in North Carolina. (The Lumbee Tribe has not yet responded to Splinter’s request for comment.)

On Thursday, EBCI Principal Chief Richard Sneed published a response at Indianz, and in that response, he explained, from the Cherokee perspective, how EBCI factors into the Lumbee’s attempts at federal recognition.

Second, Senator Burr claims that the Eastern Band has “aggressively” opposed his Lumbee recognition legislation (S.1638) to protect our “gaming business.” Actually, the Eastern Band has opposed Lumbee recognition legislation for literally a century, long before tribal gaming. The Lumbees have claimed to be a Cherokee tribe and at least three other historic tribes over the years, and their identity as an historic tribe and as individual descendants of an historic tribe has been questioned for many, many years. The Lumbee and other groups have tried to appropriate our Cherokee culture and identity, and the Eastern Band and other established tribes have opposed this appropriation. As Senator Burr knows, the Eastern Band and other tribes support the Lumbees going through the federal acknowledgment process at the Department of the Interior to get a fair shot at federal recognition but oppose Senator Burr’s bill that would circumvent the federal administrative process.

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Now, Sneed is correct here in saying that S.B. 1638 is an attempt by the Lumbee to circumvent the Interior’s process. However, it is a little misleading to infer that the only proper way to attain federal recognition is to go through the Department of the Interior. In 2018, Congress passed H.R. 984, which granted federal recognition to six tribes in Virginia—the Chickahominy Indian Tribe, the Chickahominy Indian Tribe-Eastern Division, the Upper Mattaponi Tribe, the Rappahannock Tribe, the Monacan Nation, and the Nansemond Tribe.

When President Donald Trump signed the bill into law, it marked the first time in decades that a tribe has attained federal recognition via legislation, but it came with a hefty caveat—none of the six tribes are allowed to open a casino. (Moving past the tired and racist stereotype of gambling Indians, gaming operations are crucial to Native nations because they provide a form of economic stability so that tribes can move away from depending on the federal government’s constantly underfunded social programs.)

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This was the route the Lumbee were looking to take.


So! That’s just one prong of Burr’s column. A lot, right?

Now, on the other end, Burr called out EBCI for opposing the Catawba Nation’s recent attempts to reclaim its land in North Carolina, which is being attempted via S. 790, sponsored by Sen. Lindsey Graham and supported by Burr.

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The bill would allow for the nation to set up a casino near Kings Mountain, NC, about a 40-minute drive from Charlotte. The legislation and its proponents, including Catawba Nation Chief Bill Harris, were heard by the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs in early May. But the day before the hearing, Sneed offered the following argument against the bill and the proposed casino:

“Congress has never authorized an off-reservation casino by legislation, for good reason. The bill circumvents the federal processes that give local stakeholders – the State Senate, the Governor, community members, and interested North and South Carolinians – a voice in whether to move forward with the casino. Rather than hear from interested parties, this bill silences those voices and replaces the process with backroom political dealing.”

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Within three weeks, the Republican-majority North Carolina state Senate voiced their opposition to the bill. Now, as Burr pointed out, the EBCI have long been a major political donor to the state legislature for a variety of measures, but in this case, it does stand to reason that some of the 38 representatives who issued a letter condemning the bill have a vested interest behind their opposition. After initially staying out of the fight, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper also came down on the side of the opposition, voicing concerns that the governor’s office would be excised from the conversation.

One of the reasons for the strong opposition is the undeniable fact that a casino near Kings Mountain would mean competition for the two casinos currently operated by the EBCI. According to Smoky Mountain News, roughly 30 percent of the customers who visit the Cherokee casinos live closer to Kings Mountain than they do the EBCI reservation.

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The only reason the Catawba Nation is attempting to go the legislative route to obtain the land and its casino is because a prior agreement with the intensely anti-gaming South Carolina government prevents it from opening a casino on the tribal land in Rock Hill, S.C.

When contacted by Splinter, Catwaba Nation tribal administrator Elizabeth Harris passed along the following statement from Chief Bill Harris:

“For centuries, the Catawba Indian Nation has been fighting: against forces that ensure Native nations lose their identities and stay impoverished, against those who deny our rights to our aboriginal lands, and alongside the Patriots at the Battle of Kings Mountain during the Revolutionary War. We have been the David against many Goliaths, and today, we continue to fight for the very future of the Catawba people.

Why does the federal government permit some tribes the ability to be economically self-sufficient, which allows for better scholarships, healthcare, community facilities, and well-paying jobs? And, why shouldn’t the Catawba people have those same rights? The Catawba Indian Nation simply wants to receive the same treatment as other Tribes.

Goliath may be bigger – with more money and political connections – but we have the truth: Catawbas have played a major role in the history of North Carolina, and Catawbas deserve fair access to opportunities and equal treatment by the U.S. government.”

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Harris also provided the following assessment of the situation in her own words:

We are happy to share our views, but we have always maintained the upmost respect to EBCI. We do not want this to become tribe vs. tribe. We just want what is fair and given to other federally recognized tribes.

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Here are some things I don’t know and some things that I do. I do not yet know, nor can I hazard a guess, as why the Observer allowed Burr’s op-ed to run sans context. I can also not yet detail all of the various behind-the-scenes politicking that led to Burr’s decision to pen his op-ed.

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I do know, however, that the Lumbee Tribe should be federally recognized. I know the Catwaba Nation deserves to have its North Carolina-based land restored. I know the EBCI deserves to have its heritage and history protected and upheld. And I know that all three of these tribal nations are their own distinct political authorities and powers, all beset with different goals and desires, which manifests itself in a variety of lobbying efforts to a variety of state and federal legislators and departments.

And, finally, I do know that a white, Southern United States politician attempting to inflame relations between multiple Native nations—by dropping a bombshell column in one of his state’s biggest newspapers, and not through conversing with the tribal nations themselves—is a bad look.