When I teach and find time to do research, I read a lot about histories of violence: intimate murders, sadistic massacres, and unrelenting warfare, it seems, pop up in my daily reading. The sounds of cruelty sometimes rings in my ears. I once heard a historian of the middle ground say that the years when no wars were fought vastly outnumber those when conflict occurred. We should focus less, as a result, on the so-called “Indian Wars.” Look instead at those places where natives and newcomers accommodated one another. I get this. It was an important insight. But it struck me as akin to saying that a couple’s marriage was perfect until they divorced.
Maybe I am too sensitive. I don’t think so. I tend to be a bit cynical, and at times I am pessimistic. Reading the stuff I read sometimes grinds me down. We study the past for a better future, right? Isn’t that something people say? Those who do not know the past are doomed to repeat it? You have heard Santayana’s old gem. But isn’t it more accurate to say that the vast majority of people have little interest and less knowledge about the past and that the threat that history will judge them just does not carry much weight. Writing history because you want to make the world a better place? Knock yourself out, kid. The twenty people who read your journal article or the 10 people listening to your conference presentation while thumbing through their phones I am sure will remember your work at the barricades.
The news does not help. After listening to lectures about Amy Coney Barrett’s pious devotion to a fringy and mean-spirited variant of Catholicism, one of her first acts on the Supreme Court was to defy the Pope and the Gospel’s call to mercy and send to the death chamber an African American man tried by an all-white jury. The Republicans, showing themselves to be little more than a party of cowards, grifters, and racists, have served as enablers to the slow-witted brute who occupies the White House and his slow-motion, bumbling, but dangerous attempt to subvert the results of an election he clearly lost. Democrats, meanwhile, seem powerless to do anything. They continue to select as their leaders people who were old when the 1960s blew up, while attempting to marginalize the most brilliant voice the party has seen in two decades. The entire political system is a mess, and many of us are getting precisely the leadership we deserve. There is no historical law mandating that a constitution must last forever and, with the civic illiteracy of the American people, I sometimes feel like our time is nearly up.
So it was nice to see that there was some good news. Congress last week passed a bill formally recognizing the Lumbee tribe of North Carolina. It passed unanimously. Now it is on to the Senate where so many bills go to die. Like a deranged nurse in an old folks’ home who gets off on smothering his elderly patients, Mitch McConnell is a rot in the American body politic who takes delight in sowing misery and snuffing out legislation that does good work. I cannot be certain about the bill’s prospects even with our Bronze Creon’s pledged support during the dying days of his bloated, narcissistic campaign.
In little of the coverage of this story was there much discussion of what “recognition” means, how it happens, and why it matters. I wrote about recognition and acknowledgment in Native America but will have to update that section completely when it comes time to prepare the third edition. The origins of the federal acknowledgment program go back to 1978, that year when Congress implemented so much important legislation. Aware of the growing number of native peoples who belonged to communities that had neither signed treaties with the United States nor been the specific objects of federal legislation, Congress in early October established a set of guidelines for the “Federal Acknowledgment of Indian Tribes” that had not been officially recognized by the government in the past as Indian. You may be of Indian descent, but you are not Indigenous peoples unless we say you are, the statute declares.
The “acknowledgment” statute required that an Indian tribe, in order to be formally recognized as such by the Interior Department and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, must demonstrate that they have “been identified from historical times until the present on a substantially continuous basis as ‘American Indian,’ or ‘aboriginal.’” They must demonstrate as well that the members of the community had inhabited a specific area or that they live “in a community viewed as American Indian and distinct from other populations in the area.” The petitioning tribe must also establish that it had “maintained political influence or other authority over its members as an autonomous entity throughout history until the present.” Acknowledgment, the statute reads, “is a prerequisite to the protection, services, benefits, from the Federal Government available to Indian tribes.” Such acknowledgment, the statute continues, “shall also mean that the tribe is entitled to all the immunities and privileges available to other federally acknowledged Indian tribes by virtue of their status as Indian tribes as well as the responsibilities and obligations of such tribes.” It is a tough standard to reach, but a number of tribes filed petitions and succeeded.
With increasing numbers of people identifying themselves as Native American, and growing numbers of native communities seeking federal acknowledgment, a backlash has occurred against these “new Indians.” Many argue that the federal acknowledgment process has not worked out the way Congress intended. It is a time-consuming and expensive process, for one thing, with standards that are difficult to meet. The statute is written with an assumption that Native peoples seeking recognition have well-documented histories and governing institutions that conform to white peoples’ expectations of who Indians are and what they ought to be. The statute, even with some helpful revisions, is unwieldy. Many of the precise reasons that Indigenous peoples cannot meet the law’s requirements are products of the process of colonialism: war, migration, land loss, depopulation.
Nonetheless, establishing an acknowledgment procedure was an important step by the government, an explicit rejection of the long-cherished notion that native peoples would vanish or blend into the American mainstream. The federal government, despite the law’s shortcomings and many difficulties, willingly acknowledged its responsibilities to a growing number of tribal groups, and established procedures for beginning government-to-government relations with previously unrecognized native communities. That is no small matter.
The Mohegans, for instance, landless as a community since the nineteenth century and never recognized as native peoples by the federal government, filed for acknowledgment at their first opportunity. They also sued Connecticut, asserting that the state seized the community’s lands in violation of the federal Indian Trade and Intercourse Acts, which stated that all land transactions required federal oversight and approval. In 1989, eleven years after they first filed for recognition, the Bureau of Indian Affairs issued a “proposed finding” that rejected the Mohegans’ application on the grounds that the community had not provided adequate evidence of political and social activity in the 1940s and 1950s to prove the tribe’s continuous existence. The Mohegans submitted additional materials and, in 1994, after sixteen years and 20,000 pages of documentation, the Bureau of Indian Affairs acknowledged the Mohegans as an Indian tribe. Several months later, in October of 1994, President Bill Clinton signed legislation settling the Mohegans’ suit for lands in Connecticut in return for the creation of a 240-acre reservation consisting of lands the government agreed to hold in trust for the newly acknowledged native nation.
The Mohegans moved through the slow and burdensome acknowledgment process. Not all tribes have followed that route. The Mohegans’ neighbors, the Mashantucket Pequots, received acknowledgment through the enactment of a congressional law specifically for that purpose. So did the Tigua Pueblos, whose story plays a large role in the final chapter of the textbook. If Congress has “plenary power” over Indian affairs, legislation could offer an end-run around the difficult acknowledgment process.
But legislation poses difficulties as well. Few congressional representatives and senators are informed or interested in Native American issues, and other native communities, with long and well-documented histories, have not been able to move as far as the Tiguas. The constituent communities of the Powhatan Chiefdom, recognized as Indian tribes by the Commonwealth of Virginia in 1983, only received recognition in 2017. Wahunsonacock’s people sought recognition to help their people. According to the anthropologist Helen C. Rountree, who testified on behalf of the Virginia tribes and has done more than any scholar to tell their stories, they sought acknowledgment in order to acquire “better access to health programs, which are badly needed by their elders now.” Many of their elders, deprived of educational opportunities unless they attended “colored” schools when they were younger, were quite poor. The communities possessed few resources, and they hoped that the government would help. Native peoples in Virginia continued to meet opposition as they sought acknowledgment. They continue to struggle against racial stereotypes held by the dominant society. Living in a state that insisted for much of its history that only two races existed, Virginia’s native peoples routinely face skepticism that they are “real” Indians, because they do not conform to the dominant white stereotype of the mounted plains warrior.
The Lumbees of North Carolina have struggled for even longer to obtain recognition. Legislation in Congress to extend to them recognition languished for decades. Racist science worked against their claims to Indian identity. Their story is well told in the works of anthropologists Gerald Sider and Karen Blu, and the historian Malinda Maynor Lowery.
As North Carolina’s Indigenous peoples struggled in the aftermath of catastrophic epidemics in the seventeenth century, and as they confronted the enormous pressure of a land-hungry white population in the eighteenth, the surviving Indians retreated into the interior. In the backcountry, in the pine barrens, and in the swamps—on the marginal lands of little value to those who aspired to plant tobacco, native peoples from a variety of battered communities—along with small numbers of runaway slaves and marginalized and impoverished whites, forged new communities that confounded the expectations of their neighbors. They never ceased viewing themselves as “Indian,” but they had, and continue to have, difficulty convincing outsiders that they were something much more than “free people of color.”
That is precisely what the Lumbees were considered in North Carolina during the period from 1835 through to the end of the American Civil War. No one owned them, but they lacked the right to vote and to swear an oath in a court of law when one of the parties was white. From 1885 until 1911 they went by the name “Croatan,” a label considered appropriate and acceptable by those who hypothesized that the mixed-race Lumbees descended in part from Sir Walter Ralegh’s “Lost Colonists.” Neighboring whites quickly shortened this to “Cro,” a reflection of the Jim Crow system of racial discrimination. “Croatan” fell out of favor among the Lumbees as a result, and in 1911 they successfully persuaded the state legislature to once again change their name, this time to “Indians of Robeson County.” That lasted only two years, and in 1913, they became the “Cherokee Indians of Robeson County,” a name that drew protests from Cherokees in Oklahoma and North Carolina who feared that they would have to share their scarce resources with this new group of Cherokees. Tensions of this sort still exist.
What is in a name? A lot, it turns out. Nobody with any expertise doubts that the Lumbees are “Native American.” Their history is well documented. During the closing days of the campaign, President Trump promised to support legislation that at long last would extend federal recognition to the Lumbees, even if he has long expressed doubts about Native American communities and individuals that do not meet his limited standards of authenticity. As the Lumbee historian Malinda Maynor Lowery has pointed out, “Lumbees are not unique for their multiracial ancestry, even among Native Americans,” and “there is no ‘pure’ past by which our authenticity and legitimacy can be accurately measured.” At long last, Congress has done the right thing in passing the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina Recognition Act. Let’s hope that the hyper-partisan Republican chamber of doom that the Senate has become under Mitch McConnell finds the same good sense to bring justice to a long-maligned people.
We could use some good news.