Gambling debate hampers Lumbee’s recognition bid

By Tom Breen
Pembroke, North Carolina (AP) May 2010

The Lumbee Indians of North Carolina, tired of being not quite a tribe in the eyes of the federal government, are watching their best-ever chance at recognition slip away because of a dispute over the role gambling should play in their future.

Failure would mean the largest Native American tribe east of the Mississippi would continue missing out on millions in funding for housing, education and health care.

“We’ve got the ball and we’re running toward the end zone, and suddenly we’re being stopped,” said Beth Jacobs, a Lumbee who has emerged as a leader among members who say recent decisions by tribal leaders are jeopardizing the recognition bid.

The dispute centers on a contract, ratified in March by the Lumbee Tribal Council, that makes Lewin International, a Nevada-based gambling industry consulting firm, the tribe’s sole representative in the recognition effort.

The contract took many Lumbees by surprise, because their bill for recognition in Congress forbids the tribe from making money off gambling, and the contract makes gambling the most attractive option for Lewin.

The contract, a copy of which was obtained by The Associated Press, doesn’t make gambling the sole focus of lobbying efforts. However, it specifies that Lewin will try to win passage of a bill “preferably without any language” blocking the Lumbee from getting into the gambling business.

If Congress passes a bill that allows the Lumbees to open a casino, Lewin would have dibs on developing the property. In that scenario, if the Lumbees opted not to open a casino, Lewin would walk away with a $35 million payout.

Other scenarios in the contract include giving Lewin a shot at developing tribal property for tourism if the current bill passes without gambling. But the region where most Lumbees live isn’t near the resorts in the mountainous west or the eastern seacoast, and the prospects of leisure development there are dicier without an attraction like a casino.

“It makes us look like liars,” Jacobs said. “We’ve said all along we don’t want gaming, we want recognition.”

Congress will not support a Lumbee recognition bill that includes gambling, said Washington, D.C.-based lawyer Arlinda Locklear, who had been the tribe’s attorney and lobbyist for 20 years. Blocking newly recognized tribes from making money off gambling has become common over the last 20 years.

North Carolina’s senators, Republican Richard Burr and Democrat Kay Hagan, say they remain committed to the bill. Privately, some of the tribe’s legislative allies say the contract and the dispute over it make a full Senate vote hard to pull off. They say the bill may have to be tacked onto other legislation to give it a chance at passing this year.

Tribal leaders blame critics of the contract for making an internal tribal matter public – potentially giving opponents ammunition to shoot down recognition efforts.

In a letter circulated at the tribe’s spring powwow this month, three members of the council wrote, “Tribal division has been a successful method to defeat American Indians since the first Europeans came to our shores. We are Lumbee people. We settle our differences within the family.”

Leaders insist the dustup over gambling is overblown and say the contract offers a range of scenarios and compensation options for Lewin, a firm they argue has leverage in the Senate the tribe didn’t get with Locklear.

“The bill in the Senate does not contain gaming,” said Lumbee Chairman Purnell Swett. “Our effort for federal recognition is not about gaming.”

Calls to Larry Lewin, president of Lewin International, were not returned.

Federal status has eluded the Lumbee since the 1880s, when North Carolina recognized the tribe, whose members live mostly in Robeson, Hoke, Scotland and Cumberland countries.

After at least 12 congressional studies and countless bills over the last 120 years, the Lumbee have never been closer than they are now. The bill has passed the House of Representatives and a key Senate committee, and for the first time ever the president, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and both North Carolina senators all support recognition.

“We get a favorable vote on the Senate floor, and it’s on the president’s desk,” Swett said.

In 1956, Congress stranded the Lumbee in their current legal limbo by recognizing them as Indians but denying them the full tribal status needed to receive benefits. The law also blocks the BIA from recognizing the Lumbee, which is why the tribe has to petition Congress.

The action was in line with assimilation-minded federal policy at the time. Since then, other tribes stuck in the same limbo have won full recognition. But the Lumbees’ sheer size – with about 55,000 members – has made other tribes wary about losing federal resources to them.

Going unrecognized has not been all bad. The Lumbee avoided confinement to reservations and the patronizing treatment of the federal government that afflicted recognized tribes in the early 20th century.

Instead, Lumbees ran their own education system for nearly 100 years before desegregation opened the schools to non-Indians. The present-day University of North Carolina at Pembroke was previously the sole publicly funded four-year college for Indians in the country. Lumbees founded a bank, utility cooperative and Southern Baptist association, all of which still flourish.

And over the last decade, the tribe has thrown itself into new building projects and services, aided by federal Housing and Urban Development funding. Ten years ago, the tribe had $2 million in assets and fewer than 10 full-time employees. Today, it’s worth more than $50 million and has 80 permanent workers, most of them located in a giant, turtle-shaped complex in Pembroke that opened in December as the tribe’s headquarters.

The success has been uneven, though. Robeson County, where most Lumbees live, is one of the state’s poorest. A drive on the back roads around Pembroke, where nearly nine in 10 residents are Lumbee, reveals well-kept farms with contentedly grazing cows, but also dilapidated homes and junked cars.

Statistics show Lumbees are far likelier than non-Native Americans to suffer heart disease or be murdered. Half the tribe’s teenage boys drop out of high school. And 40 percent of the tribe’s members live in mobile homes.

The current bill would send at least $108 million a year in federal dollars to the tribe, mostly in health care funding, according to a Congressional Budget Office estimate.

The people worried about jeopardizing that money have organized the new Lumbee Sovereignty Coalition, and have been holding meetings in diners, churches and fire halls to galvanize opposition. They’re particularly angry at language that lets Lewin International oversee the development of tribal property if the Lumbees win federal recognition.

They pointedly explain that members of the council can be dumped from office by voters, although the coalition says it’s not officially pushing a recall movement.

“We’re letting people know what their rights are under the constitution,” said Lawrence Locklear, a former council member. He is not directly related to the tribe’s former lawyer.

The coalition has raised the specter of being forced to sell homes and community centers built by the tribe to pay the contract’s penalties, a possibility tribal leaders say is unrealistic. Leaders also say that if Lewin fails to win recognition by January 2011, the tribe owes nothing.

Frustratingly for both sides, the dispute itself could work against the Lumbee in Congress, according to Renee Ann Cramer, a professor at Drake University and an expert on the federal recognition process.

“People will look at that sort of disagreement and say, Oh, there are factions, they’re not united,” she said. “Our image of tribes is still very 19th century. We have this idea that tribes have to be unanimous.”