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Session 3: Government and Politics

Should we not therefore run all risks, and incur all consequences rather than to submit to further loss of our country? Such treaties may be alright for men who are too old to hunt or fight. As for me, I have my young warriors about me. We will hold our land.

—Cherokee chief Dragging Canoe,
speech to the Treaty Council of Sycamore Shoals, 1775

The Lumbee Indians: Searching for Justice, Searching for Identity

David K. Eliades
The following article appeared in Tar Heel Junior Historian 28 (spring 1989), 47–49.

On February 1, 1988, two Robeson County Indians took twenty people hostage in a newspaper office. They held their hostages for ten hours before releasing them. The two captors said they were Tuscarora Indians, and they claimed they were protesting corruption by officials in the county. This incident was very revealing. It focused state and national attention on Lumbee Indian concerns for racial justice. It focused attention on their desire to establish a tribal identity.

Robeson County Native Americans are the second largest group of Indians in the United States. The great majority of them identify themselves as Lumbee Indians, not Tuscaroras. Yet they are a native people without a traditional Indian culture. When Scottish settlers began moving into the Cape Fear valley in the 1700s, they found the Lumbee’s ancestors already there. They were Indian in physical appearance, but they lived like Englishmen. The Lumbee lifestyle raised questions about their origins. Numerous attempts have been made to trace those origins and to explain how they came to have a European-based culture. Final proof has not been offered, but some historians support a “Lost Colony theory.” This theory states that the Lumbees are descended from coastal Indians and Sir Walter Raleigh’s famous “Lost Colony.” The colony disappeared from Roanoke Island between 1587 and 1590. Most scholars now accept the “amalgamation theory” about their Indian origins. This theory says that the Lumbees are what is left of many tribes that were wiped out by disease and war in the 1700s. These tribes include the Cheraw and Tuscarora. They mystery of how they gained an English culture remains unsolved.

In the mid-1700s the Lumbees were described by a colonial official as “a mixt crew, a lawless people, possessing the land without patent.”. . . Their history becomes more certain in the Revolutionary War era. A number of Lumbees fought for independence in the American Revolution (1776–1783), and several were rewarded with land for their service.

The Lumbees in the late 1700s and early 1800s were considered “free persons of color.” And they had all the rights of first-class citizens. Yet in the 1820s the growing threat of slave insurrections made many white southerners afraid of all nonwhites. They feared the Lumbees might incite the slaves to violence. At the same time, traditional Indian tribes found themselves under attack. They were considered obstacles to progress. Indian removal was a way to tear down the obstacle by removing Indians from North Carolina to another state. In 1835 delegates to the North Carolina Constitutional Convention deprived all nonwhites of their political privileges. The Lumbees were able to escape earlier Indian removal because they were so much a part of the white culture. But they did not escape the loss of their rights.

Under the 1835 Constitution, Lumbees were not allowed to own weapons, to vote or hold office, to attend public schools, or to serve in the military. The next generation of Lumbees also suffered greatly from additional abuse. It was a time of frustration and discrimination. To this day there is still bitterness among the Lumbees over what are known as tied-mule incidents. These occurred when a white person placed several of his livestock on an Indian’s land. He then claimed that the Indian had stolen the animals. The Indian knew he had little chance of getting justice. He would agree to pay an out-of-court settlement. This settlement usually gave free labor or a piece of land to the white person. This type of treatment fueled Lumbee anger. It also helps explain the racial conflicts of the 1860s and 1870s.

Henry Berry Lowry

At the start of the Civil War in 1861, the Lumbees were viewed as a potential danger to the Confederacy. They were also seen as a potential source of forced labor for Confederate military projects. The militia tried to control and to exploit the Indians. As a result some Indians wereabused and some were killed. In 1864, Henry Berry Lowry, a young Lumbee, fought back. His actions triggered the “Lowry War.” For the next decade, southeastern North Carolina knew terror and bloodshed as Lowry became the most hunted outlaw in the state’s history. Like much of the Lumbee past, Lowry is controversial. He was thought by his defenders to be a hero. His critics thought he was a common criminal. His image as an Indian folk hero was enhanced by his mysterious, still-debated disappearance in 1872. (Click here to read an article about Lowry by Jeff Currie, a curator at the NC Museum of History and a Lumbee.)

The Reconstruction period after the Civil War promised a new era in civil rights. The late 1800s brought segregation instead. . . . Lumbees rejected white North Carolinians’ attempts to force them into black society. They received help from state representative Hamilton McMillan. He helped them get legislation establishing separate schools for themselves, and Indian normal school, and a specific tribal name. For most of the 1800s, they were generally called “mixed bloods.” They were sometimes labeled “Indians.” In 1887 they became known as the Croatan Indians. When that name was turned into a racial slur, they became known as the Indians of Robeson County and the Cherokee Indians of Robeson County. Finally in 1953 they voted to identify themselves as the Lumbees. It was hoped this would absolutely establish their “Indianness” and their identity. But not all of the Indian people in Robeson County have accepted Lumbee as their tribal designation. The Tuscarora faction, for example, insists that the Lumbee name has no historical foundation. They refuse to accept it.

The beginning of the legal end of segregation in 1954 opened many doors. Yet gains were not made without a struggle. In 1958 the Ku Klux Klan announced a rally in Maxton to “keep” the Lumbees in their “place” and to end “race mixing.” The Indians turned out for the rally and disrupted the Klansmen with gunfire. Since that time, the Lumbees have helped to bring about a school merger in Robeson County. They have sought and generally gained greater political power at municipal and county levels of government. They have urged their people to become educated. They now have more college graduates than all other Indian tribes combined. They are actively involved in the professions and in business. They have established the first Indian-owned bank in the nation. They are engaged in a massive effort to gain full federal recognition. To the Lumbees the achievement of national recognition would be a climactic event in their history, largely ending the identity issue and laying a foundation for future progress.









A poster advertising the 1958 Maxton KKK rally and an editorial cartoon that appeared after the rally.

The Meherrin: A Fight for Recognition

Beth Crist

In 1650 English colonists in southeastern Virginia encountered the Meherrin. In the years that followed, the Meherrin, like other Indian tribes in North Carolina, struggled to maintain their culture in a white-dominated society. In 1986 the Meherrin took a major step forward when they achieved state recognition as a North Carolina Indian tribe.

In 1677 the Meherrin tribe entered into a treaty with the colonial government of Virginia. Encroachment by colonists forced the Meherrin into North Carolina around 1706. In 1726 North Carolina’s colonial government granted the tribe land for a reservation near Winton and Parker’s Ferry at the mouth of the Meherrin River. But to escape diseases brought by settlers, as well as continued encroachment, the tribe moved into the surrounding swamps and less desirable areas of present-day Hertford County. Disbanding as an organized tribe, members blended into the general population, taking care to conceal their identities in order to survive the racist climate of the era. Their reservation and language were lost.

Tribal members attempted to reorganize the Meherrin in the late 1800s and early 1900s but were unsuccessful because of racial prejudice, factions within the Meherrin community, and the federal government’s suppression of native cultures. In 1975 the tribe successfully united with the help of the Reverend Rueben R. Lewis, a local minister. Today, most Meherrin reside in Hertford County in northeastern North Carolina, within a thirty-mile radius of the former Meherrin reservation.

Chartered as a nonprofit organization in 1977, the Meherrin tribe directed its energies toward building cultural awareness and obtaining state, and eventually federal, recognition. It began by establishing the elected positions of chief, tribal chairman, secretary, treasurer, and six tribal council members. It also enrolled tribal members, corrected members’ birth records, and worked to enhance tribal standing within the larger community. These solid first steps formed an important foundation in the Meherrin’s pursuit of state recognition.

The Meherrin petitioned the North Carolina Commission of Indian Affairs for state recognition in the early 1980s. The commission, a state agency created in 1971 to represent the interests and advocate for the rights and needs of North Carolina’s Indian population, is composed of nineteen representatives from state-recognized tribes and urban organizations, five state officials, and an appointee of both the speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives and the lieutenant governor. After submitting its petition, the tribe prepared an application to document its longevity and authenticity as a tribe. State recognition would ensure the Meherrin a seat on the North Carolina Commission of Indian Affairs and a place in history.

In considering a tribe for state recognition, the North Carolina Commission of Indian Affairs first requires that the group be a “population of Indian people all related to one another by blood, tracing their heritage to Indian tribes indigenous to North Carolina within the last two hundred years.” A tribe must then meet at least five of eight criteria in its application, which is reviewed by the commission’s Special Committee on Recognition:

  • traditional North Carolina Indian names
  • kinship relationships with other recognized tribes 
  • official records, such as birth, church, or, school, recognizing group members as Indian 
  • letters or statements from state or federal authorities recognizing group members as Indian 
  • anthropological or historical accounts tied to the group's Indian ancestry 
  • letters or statements from state-recognized tribes or groups or their representatives attesting to the group’s Indian heritage 
  • other documented traditions, customs, legends, or information signifying Indian heritage 
  • participation in or grants from sources or programs designated exclusively for Indians

When the Meherrin tribe presented its application in February 1983, the committee determined that it had met only four criteria for recognition. By 1986 the tribe had gathered additional information to satisfy a fifth criterion, and the committee approved the application. The petition process concluded with a review before the full commission. In February 1986 the commission approved the application.

Having achieved state recognition, the Meherrin are focusing on other aspirations. A recent powwow program states the tribe’s intentions: “With this recognition behind us, we are now tackling the future, which will include economic development, social and cultural retention, and federal recognition.”

Profile of the Past: Nancy Ward: War Woman of the Cherokee

Emily Herring Wilson

The following article appeared in Tar Heel Junior Historian 33 (spring 1994), 2–4.

If you had been born to a Cherokee mother and father in what is now North Carolina before the Cherokee had any contact with European settlers, you would have been a member of your mother’s clan and you would have lived in your mother’s house. Property belonged to the women, and they had a great deal of freedom in choosing their partners and in managing their families. Some women even spoke in meetings and helped decide tribal matters, including whether to go to war.

The Cherokee had a matrilineal society, which means that everyone traced kinship through the mother’s side of the family. Indian life was also matrilocal, which means that families lived in the woman’s house. After marriage, a husband moved in with his new wife.

When British explorers began to settle in the New World, they introduced a different model for society—one that was patriarchal, or dominated by men. By the beginning of the 1700s, Indian life had been so dramatically altered by white control that the role of Indian men and women within their own villages was changed forever.

We find in one Indian woman’s life some ways in which she upheld her native culture and some ways in which she adapted to the new. She was Nanye’hi, whose own people called her War Woman and, later, Beloved Woman because of her leadership within the Cherokee Nation. She was also highly regarded by white scouts, hunters, and government agents, who valued her friendship and advice. They called her "the famous Indian woman Nancy Ward."

The following more recent history relates in a unique way to Nancy Ward: In upper East Tennessee at the turn of the 20th century James Abraham Walker, a part-time tombstone sculptor and possibly a descendant of Nancy's daughter, Catherine, was moved by the legend to produce a quaint statue. It was approximately five feet high and represented Nancy Ward, holding in her right arm a fawn and in her left hand a plaque with the words "Nancy Ward, Watauga, 1776", referring to the first occasion on which she helped the pioneers by warning them of impending attack by Dragging Canoe, her cousin and the Cherokee who most effectively resisted the white settlement of Cherokee land. Walker intended this work of folk art as a gift to be placed on her grave, but financial reversals in 1912 caused him to sell it to a man, who taking advantage of the bargain price, put it at the head of his deceased wife's grave.

The statue was photographed in the Arnwine Cemetery overlooking the Clinch River, near Liberty Hill in Grainger County, Tennessee, by David Ray Smith in August, 1975. . . . Sometime in the late 1970's or very early 1980's the statue was stolen from the grave. . . . The community is quite upset that someone finally stole the statue. For years they feared someone would take and sell it. They sure do want it to be returned. There is some speculation that it might turn up on Nancy's grave near Benton, Tennessee, however, this has not yet been the case. It would surely be a shame if the stature were to be destroyed. Maybe, just maybe, it will turn up again. (Photo courtesy of David Ray Smith*.)

(To the left: Nancy Ward's grave near Benton, Tennessee.
Photo courtesy David Ray Smith*.)
Nanye’hi was born around 1738 in the Cherokee town of Chota on the Little Tennessee River. Her mother’s brother was the famous Attakullakulla. He was called the Little Carpenter because he was good at putting together treaties. Before Nanye’hi was born, Attakullakulla had gone with several Cherokee chiefs to England, where they had met the king. When Nanye’hi was a little girt, she likely heard stories about her uncle. Perhaps she was influenced in this way to become a friend of the new settlers.

Nanye’hi’s childhood was spent in a very confusing time. There were many different kinds of conflicts going on. Indian tribes often went to war against each other, as they had throughout their history. Also, France and England fought each other for control of North America in the French and Indian War (1754–1763). Later, the American colonies fought the English in the American Revolution (1775–1783). Many Cherokee favored the British, but Nanye’hi took the side of the colonists.

When Nanye’hi was in her teens, she married Kingfisher, and they had two children—Fivekiller and Catherine. Kingfisher was a member of the Deer clan, but the children became members of their mother’s Wolf clan. When the children were small, Nanye’hi must have lived like many other Cherokee women—tending her own small garden, working in the community fields, preparing food for her family, and participating in village life. Nanye’hi’s life changed dramatically when she joined Kingfisher in a war party to fight the Creek Indians in Georgia. She was probably along to help prepare food for the warriors, but when the battle began, Kingfisher was killed. Nanye’hi seized his gun and helped defeat the Creek Indians. The Cherokee recognized Nanye’hi for her bravery in battle and called her War Woman. This title meant that she could speak in council meetings and had the power to decide the fate of prisoners.

When Nanye’hi later married a white trader named Bryant Ward, she became known as Nancy Ward. They had a daughter, Elizabeth. Their marriage lasted only a few years because he joined his family again. But Nanye’hi was later an honored visitor in his home.

Learning so much about the European settlers must have helped her to understand and accept them. On several occasions she warned settlements about Indian attacks. She once saved a white woman from being burned alive by Indian warriors who were angry that European settlers had broken treaties and taken Indian land. In return for Nanye’hi’s help, the settlers treated her as their special friend.

Because of the settlers’ success in claiming land as their own and because of the weapons they had available to defend it, Nanye’hi must have decided that the only way to preserve any of the Indians’ way of life was to make peace with the settlers. At the same time, she did not want the Cherokee to give up any more of their land. She asked that the Cherokee and the settlers establish "a chain of friendship."

Nanye’hi, called Beloved Woman by the Cherokee in her later years, died in 1822. In the next decade, most of the Cherokee were forced to leave North Carolina onthe Trail of Tears to move to government lands in the West. Some were allowed to remain in the western mountains of North Carolina, where their descendants live today as members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

*David Ray Smith
David Ray Smith's entry on Nancy Ward:

Profile of the Present: Brenda J. Moore and the WSDA

Brenda J. Moore, community developer in Columbus and Bladen Counties for the North Carolina Commission of Indian Affairs, is a member of the Waccamaw-Siouan tribe. She recently answered some questions about herself and the Waccamaw-Siouan Development Association (WSDA) for the workshop.

NCMOH: What is the WSDA?

Moore: The WSDA Tribal Council, established in 1971, is the governing body for the tribe. They are responsible for acquiring funding and services for tribal members. The association is governed by a five-member board of directors elected annually by the Waccamaw-Siouan people. They maintain a tribal staff that handles the day-to-day operations of the organization.

NCMOH: What role does the WSDA play in the everyday lives of tribal members?

Moore: The WSDA is very important to the daily lives of all tribal members. The organization is utilized by our members for things as miniscule as filling out forms to acquiring a home to live in. Some examples are information and referral, business certifications and licensing, printing and publishing, child care, transportation, in-home services for the elderly, job placement, and tribal enrollment. It’s a central place where tribal members can come for many kinds of assistance. It’s like a big family where everyone helps out.

NCMOH: What is the relationship between the WSDA and local, county, and state government agencies?

Moore: The relationship between the WSDA and local, county, and state government agencies is a good one. Close collaboration with Southeastern Community College, Bladen Community College, Columbus County Commissioners, Columbus County Dream Center (a county social services program), Columbus County Tourism, and Columbus and Bladen County Departments of Social Services, just to name a few, is very evident.

NCMOH: How does the WSDA work with the North Carolina Commission of Indian Affairs?

Moore: We have two representatives that are on the North Carolina Commission of Indian Affairs board. Our local organization subcontracts from the commission with programs such as crisis intervention, Health Choice/Health Check, and more. Offices, Workforce Investment Act, and Community Services, operated by the commission, are located in the WSDA building.

NCMOH: How have you been involved in the WSDA?

Moore: I have been very involved in the WSDA for many years. My activities have included planning the tribe’s annual powwow held in October; teaching beadwork, pottery, and dream catcher making to our youth; documenting historical tribal quilts; volunteering with the rescue and fire department; and much more. I enjoy working with my tribe and its community functions.

Segregation during the Jim Crow Era

Segregation in North Carolina during the Jim Crow era was not just a black and white issue; American Indians often had to suffer through these same indignities. In the state's American Indian communities, segregation was not always as evident and identifiable. Segregation in many of the smaller American Indian communities often took the same face as segregation against blacks, but some people could bypass it if they had a light skin tone, “passing” as whites. Repeatedly, American Indians petitioned for their own schools, in effect asking to be a part of the system of segregation. They did this to gain education, but also to assert and preserve their identity that was often ignored and overlooked by other communities. Many Indians today felt that if Indians had not asserted their identity then, tribes would have ceased to exist in a few generations.

In the Lumbee/Tuscarora community of Robeson and adjoining counties, segregation took a form different than that of anywhere in North Carolina. Robeson County had tri-racial segregation, with three school systems, three seating areas in movie theatres, and three water fountains.

In 1913, Robeson County's governor-appointed white mayor asked that three waiting rooms—one for each race—be provided in the town’s proposed train station. The unusual request failed because the railroad company’s standard station plans could not accommodate triracial facilities. Click on the image above to read the letter in entirety.

Related Links

Avalon Project at the Yale Law School: Treaties between the United States and Native Americans
The Avalon Project provides texts of numerous treaties, including several with the Cherokee.

Internet Law Library: American Indian Nations and Tribes
This page provides links to a variety of websites on American Indian legal issues.

National Congress of American Indians (NCAI)
The NCAI, founded in 1944, is the oldest and largest tribal government organization in the country. NCAI's mission is to inform the public and the government on tribal self-government, treaty rights, and federal policy issues affecting tribal governments.

Assignment 3

Complete one of the following options:

Option 1
Create a list of at least four individuals who have fought for the rights of American Indians. Give a description (at least 1/2 page) of their struggles and accomplishments.

Option 2
Do you think Henry Berry Lowry was a hero, a criminal, or a little of both? Why? State your case in an essay at least one page in length.

Submit your completed assignment via e-mail to:

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