A Report on Research of Lumbee Origins by Robert K. Thomas – Part 16 – Lumbee Identify – The White Perspective

A continuation of Robert K. Thomas’s Report of Research on Lumbee Origins.  This was transcribed from a photocopy of an original report at the Wilson Library, UNC, Chapel Hill, NC in June of 2012.   Any comments I have will be made at the end of these transcriptions and it will be evident that they are mine.  To see more about Robert K. Thomas, go to:  http://works.bepress.com/robert_thomas/

Now, let’s look at what we can glean from white sources about the identification of Robeson County people  We know, if McMillan is right that French-Swiss in NC (I presume this means the people around new Bern, NC) referred to the ancestors of Robeson County people as Melungeons, that is to not (sic) Indian or black or white but as a new race, a mixture.  In Cumberland Co., NC in the 1700s it appears that whites referred to Lumbees as Indians, if we can rely on some indirect evidence.  For instance, there are quite a few Indian place names around the region (p 59) of Fayetteville in Cumberland County.  One is called Indian Wells and is an old Lumbee settlement.  Another is called Indian Walls and is the remains of another Lumbee settlement, I think perhaps a church.  A third place is called the Old Indian Stonehouse and is the remains of another building built by the early Lumbees.  Also the city of Fayetteville expended sometime in the 1880s and enclaved a community of Indians who are the same stock as the Lumbees.  In that area there is a street called Redbone Street.  Redbone is a derogatory term for mixed blood Indians in the South.  I understand it comes from the feeling of whites that although an Indian can look white if you dig down far enough their bones will be red.  So that at least whites in Cumberland County were referring to  Lumbees as Indians in the late 1700s and early 1800s.

Whites in Robeson County refer to the Lumbees from 1770, our earliest record, to about 1800 simply as mulattoes.  Mrs. Norment in the first edition of her book “the Lowery History” refers to them simply as mulattoes, although she says that the Lumbees are a mixture of white, black and Indian.  Other Robeson whites would refer to the Lumbees as mulattoes but would say they were a mixture of Indian and Portuguese.  The Indian “connection” was usually identified as Cherokee.  Whites at Civil War times referred to the Lowerys, particularly as Indians and stated that the Lowerys had always thought of themselves as Indians.

Now, if we turn to Lumbee tradition it appears that the Lumbee identification as Indians must go back pretty far.  Around 1915 A.W. McLean took a series of depositions from Lumbees in their 70s and 80s which stated that they had always been known as Indian, (p 60) some of them said Cherokee Indians but all of them said Indians, and that they were told this when they were children by their grandparents.  These depositions were invariably stated in this manner.  This would mean that a Lumbee 80 years old in 1915 was born in the 1830s and would hare grandparents who were at least born in 1790. I think it is conservative to say, based on this testimony, that at least as early as 1800 most Lumbees thought of themselves as Indian and continued presenting themselves as Indians to outsiders: even in the period between 1830 and 1860 when it was a very serious disadvantage to be an Indian in NC, when it would have been more politic (sic) to keep quiet about the matter and accept the local designation as mulattoes.

In fact, it is the Lumbee conception that they have gone through a great deal of persecution because they were Indians and a great deal of persecution as well, because they would not become black and continued to declare themselves to be Indians.  Many Lumbees feel that NC white society has been determined over the years to wipe them out as an Indian people and force them to be blacks.  Thus, many Lumbees are very resentful toward blacks, I must say inappropriately so.  But it has been blacks who have been threatening to their identity as Indians.  So as most people do, rather than taking out their resentment on the source of the problems, which was the white establishment, they have turned their anger and resentment on blacks as, say, Poles have done in Detroit.

When I started out this section one of the things I wanted to assess was not only whether there was not only a present day identity as Indians but how far back historically this may have (p 61) gone. It appears to me that the weight of the evidence would lead me to believe that before 1800 a great many Lumbees, a least, thought of themselves as Indian and that after 1800 the vast majority identified as Indians.

Now, the next question I have to address about Lumbee identity is why the confusion about tribal names among Lumbees?  Since 1880 the Lumbees have been legally called first Croatans, then Cherokee Indians of Robeson County, then Siouan Indians and then finally Lumbee Indians.  Few of these legal names have been satisfactory to any large portion of the Indians in Robeson County.  First the name Croatan was discarded after whites made a joke out of the name and it became a derogatory term in Robeson County.  The legal name “Cherokee Indians of Robeson County,” I think as fairly satisfactory to most Indians in Robeson County but the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in NC objected so strenuously to the name that it was finally discarded by the state government and by the influential Lumbees in Robeson County.  Siouan Indians never did have much currency and faded from the picture quite soon.   “Lumbee” is still not accepted by a great many people in Robeson County. It tends, primarily, to be accepted by people in the Pembroke area.

This does not mean that the Lumbees do not have a strong sense of peoplehood.  Among themselves they call themselves “Our People” or “the Indians” but it is in presenting a public face to the outside that there is disagreement.  One is tempted to say, of course, that the reason for the confusion is because Robeson County is a Pan-Indian community with the strains of three tribes in the population plus individual families form 2 or 3 tribes .  (p 62)  But I do not think that is the source of the confusion.  If one talks to Indians in Robeson County today, there are three major tribal designations which he will hear. One is Lumbee, which is the official name and tends to be current around Pembroke and with Robeson County people who live in other areas.  A great many Indians in Robeson still refer to themselves as Cherokees.  Currently quite a few people, particularly those in two heavily Indian rural area refer to themselves as Tuscaroras.  As I said in the beginning of this paper, I think this comes from Mrs. Norment’s account and has been promoted by the Indian Bureau, plus the publication of Evans book “to Die Game” in which  he quotes Mr. Normant on the history of the Lowery family with her claim of Tuscarora ancestry for the Lowerys.

Now, why the confusion?  I think the confusion emanates from two sources. One is the Lumbees have simply been misinformed by outsiders.  Most members of Indian tribes learn that they are aborigines and “our people” from their parents and, of course, this is what the Lumbees learn as well.  However, Indians learn their specific tribal designation from neighboring whites generally or whites in official positions.  I think in the 1880s the Lumbees learned from whites that they were Cherokee Indians and that has tended to stick, although many Lumbees also accept McMillan’s “Lost Colony theory.”  Such a paradox appears not to cause any conflict among those Lumbees who are themselves as (sic) both Cherokees and descendants of the Lost Colony.  Many Indians in Robeson County simply think of themselves as Indians and don’t try to identify with any particular tribe.  Anthropologists were largely responsible for the Siouan name.  The only Indians in eastern (p 63) NC who have taken over the Siouan designation are the Indians in Sampson County whom I am convinced are largely Algonquian speaking Hatteras and not Siouan at all.  I don’t hear too many people in Robeson County saying they are Siouan.  The Indians around Pembroke, I think, have accepted Lumbee as reasonable because it is a fairly neutral term; that is, it is a local term and offends no other Indians or whites.  The Tuscarora identification, once again, has tended to come from whites and is simply I think, once again a case of the Lumbees being inadvertently misinformed.

Many Lumbee, however, are now caught in a rank dilemma and that is the second source of confusion.  Lumbees want very much to be able to trace their ancestry to a specific and “respectable” historic Indian tribe.  Therefore, Cherokee and Tuscarora both are every appealing tribal designations to many of the Lumbees.  I am hoping that Wes White does not promote the Waccamaw name among the Lumbees so that we will have a Waccamaw “faction” in Robeson County in future years.  In spite of their strong sense of Lumbee peoplehood and a strong identity of being Indian, Lumbees are still confused about their tribal background because they have not only been misinformed by whites but also because many Lumbees are searching for some “respectable” Indian tribal roots.  Many of the Lumbees, in the past 20 years, have become a little called into question by the attitudes of outsiders toward them.  I think that a great many whites really do not “buy” the identification of Lumbees in Robeson County as Indians of any tribe.  Further, some people in other Indian groups feel the same way as do whites about the Lumbees.  Many Lumbees have obvious (p 64) black blood.  Lumbees do not have a distinct language and a distinct tribal religion.  Different individual Lumbees present themselves as members of different tribes, which causes some confusion on the part of many Indians of other tribes.  I think many such Indians think that the Lumbees don’t know who they are and reflect this reaction back to the Lumbees; which of course causes many Lumbees to wonder more who they are.

Further, there is a search for validation going on among many Lumbees now.  Many would like some official agency to not only validate them as Indians but to validate them as descendants of a historic Indian group.  It appears to me that the desire on the part of many Indians in Robeson County to be recognized by the federal government stems in part from just such a search for validation.  Now this isn’t all there is to the desire for federal recognition.  Certainly the Lumbee would benefit from better health facilities if they were recognized by the federal government, but I don’t’ think that is the main source of Lumbee motivation for official recognition.  As I say, I think part of it stems from the search for outside validation but also with many Lumbees “recognition” is a moral point.  Many Indians in Robeson County feel as if the federal government has neglected them for many years.  Official recognition on the part of the federal government that they are indeed Indian would be something of an apology and a confession on the part of the federal government that officialdom has been lax in recognizing not only that the Lumbees are Indian but a respectable and worthy community in the world.

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About Roberta Estes

Scientist, author, genetic genealogist. Documenting Native Heritage through contemporaneous records and DNA.
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6 Responses to A Report on Research of Lumbee Origins by Robert K. Thomas – Part 16 – Lumbee Identify – The White Perspective

  1. Sylvia Smith says:

    Grew up in Fayetteville, NC (Cumberland County) in section of town called “Redbone”-Hillsboro, Moore, Orange, Frink, Cumberland, Chatham, Chance, Mechanic Streets. Always wanted to know why this part of town was called Redbone”. Please share any information yhat you may have.

  2. Marissa says:

    I was told I had Indian blood in me. I had Indian relatives when I was little. I was told I am part Cherokee and Lumbee. I already consider lumbee mulattoes. I know it hurts some lumbees that the dna results prove they are not Indian . Namaste.

  3. Askuwheteau says:

    i grew up Lumbee. Attacks on who we are are normal and we pay it no mind. We do not need whites to validate us nor de we need racist Natives causing a fuss because of our large mixed population. Helping hide slaves is something we are proud of. the mixing and welcoming of those in danger is the way in the first place. If other Natives want to “invalidate” us go ahead. We don’t need them for our ceremonies and our history. We have our people and if that is all we have then we will survive with our people alone.

    • Ebony Barney says:

      I’m doing some research on this very case. My ancestors were listed as Croatan but they were certainly mixed with African blood. I am starting to think they were ostracized for that and the reason it is so challenging for me to complete this section of my family history. I will be travelling to North Carolina this summer to complete some of my research. Any chance I could ask you a few questions over the phone or by email? ebony.barney@gmail.com

      • I am not Lumbee. If you have DNA tested at Family Tree DNA, join the Lumbee project there. Rob, who administers the project, is very knowledgeable.

  4. Bobra Collins Bright McAdams says:

    My grandfather , Harry Manuel formerly of Wilmington, NC said he was born in 1897 in Red Springs near Pembroke County. His siblings traveled near The Lumbar River ( 2 brothers went north to settle in Norfolk VA, 2 brothers went to Eastern Carolina and settled in Little Washington and Leland, while he with one sister ended up in Wilmington and two sisters traveled further south to Orlando , FL.
    Ironically, he “never” spoke of Indian heritage to me although the curly black then silvery or white long hair was quite pronounced in all of his siblings and throughout his family. Later the related terms, such as Lumbee, Cherokee, Croatan, as historians began writing and publishing. Many in my generations who had fair skin were called “mulattos” by the whites and even “redbones” or “hammers” by the blacks.

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