In September 1923 – exactly 100 years ago – Adolph Hitler made one of his first appearances on film. At this filmed meeting, he put up signs that said:
“No entry for Jews”
Hitler discussed German “honor” – and he was belligerent with his demands to protect that honor. His emerging power became known as the Third Reich or the “third empire”. This empire was born through persistent discourse from Hitler that pushed Germans to honor the sacrifices that he made (which was his request for sympathy leading to his failed takeover of the German government later that year). Perhaps most importantly, the third reich was fueled by a nationalistic campaign to affirm the sovereignty of Germany through the mockery of – and, ultimately, the murder of – Jewish peoples.
It is important to note here that Hitler was mesmerizing. He had a way of developing coalitions and of making people follow him. He attempted, at the same time, to turn toward Jewish peoples and make them the antithesis to German sovereignty.
I suggest here that, now, 100 years after Hitler made his appearance on the world stage, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and the Cherokee Nation have heavily invested themselves in forming coalitions to mock and dehumanize American Indian tribal nations across the United States – in particular, the Lumbee Tribe (my community). Lumbee people, including my cousins, regularly danced and sang in Cherokee powwows in the early 2000s. Though Cherokee people testified before Congress that we (Lumbees) didn’t know who we were, there was a sentiment that Cherokee people ultimately knew who we were – that we were their kin and cousins and neighbors within Indian Country.
However, things are changing. I heard information in 2022 that at the annual powwow hosted by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, a statement appeared on the official poster:
Must be Federally Recognized or First Nations People & show affiliation representation in order to receive prize money.
In other words: “No entry for Lumbees”.
At first, I was shocked. Then I remembered that the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians tribal leaders spent much of the pandemic sending out messages opposing Lumbee recognition by the Federal Government. Their Chief, Richard Sneed, sent out a message on Facebook in 2020 stating that Lumbee people were invested in “large scale cultural identity theft”.
I accepted this banter…a bit. I was sort of used to it. I remember when Michell Hicks, former Chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians who just won re-election in early September 2023 in a landslide defeat of Sneed, was conveniently absent from a United Methodist meeting (around 2010 or 2011) where many Lumbees were present. One Lumbee Pastor yelled out: “Tell him that if he can testify before Congress (that we aren’t Indian), he can worship with us.”
Perhaps that is why Sneed has been loudly opposed to Lumbee identity and recognition over the last few years. Yes, Hicks also opposed Lumbee recognition before Congress. But now, in the 2020s, being anti-Lumbee – being LOUDLY anti-Lumbee – is seen as the mark of a good Cherokee leader. If you believe that Hicks opposes Lumbee sovereignty less loudly, it is obvious that he had to sign onto anti-Lumbee policy (what he has long championed) as a part of gaining support for his newest political race to the top of the Cherokee government.
Nevertheless, and within those contexts, Cherokee-led anti-Lumbee politics are growing quite toxic. (“Toxic” is a pleasant way of describing it.) Recently, the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), which was established in the mid-20th Century to support and represent all of Indian Country no matter states of recognition, announced a vote at the 2023 annual meeting to amend part of its constitution. The proposal is signed by Richard Sneed, Chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, and Ben Barnes, Chief of the Shawnee Tribe. The call for this proposed amendment was delivered by hand and by email on or after July 20, 2023 to Fawn Sharp, the President of NCAI. Here is a link to the letter.
The Cherokee/Shawnee authored letter says that NCAI’s criteria for being a member nation within NCAI:
allows groups with no acknowledgment from any other sovereign whatsoever to be full tribal members with the same voting rights as established tribal sovereigns. Groups claiming to be tribes that are acknowledged as tribes by states are also eligible for NCAI tribal membership but should not be. State standards for tribal acknowledgment are minimal at best. In fact, NCAI today includes as full tribal members state-recognized groups that were found to have little to no Native ancestry within their membership when they sought federal recognition through the federal acknowledgment process. NCAI must get its house in order by addressing this flawed membership standard.
In the end, the letter (proposal) calls for:
…a simple solution to this problem. Federally recognized tribal nations should be eligible for tribal membership with full voting rights within the organization. The proposed amendments would permit only tribes with treaty and/or trust relations with the United States to be eligible for tribal membership. State-recognized groups could continue to participate in NCAI and hold Organization Associate Membership. Non-federally acknowledged groups that currently hold tribal member status would be deemed to be Organization Associate Members With these much-needed corrections, NCAI will be poised to better act in the interest of its sovereign member tribes.
A simple ‘solution’? That is an odd but familiar term.
This letter became publicly available along with a letter from Fawn Sharp in which she made a provocative statement: “In addition to conducting elections and debating the proposed amendments to the Constitution, there will be…a chance for us to work together towards fulfilling NCAI’s mission of defending tribal sovereignty.”
Sharp’s message was politically disappointing given the nature of the Cherokee/Shawnee proposal, which aimed to describe non-Federally recognized member nations within NCAI (in particular, the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina) as opposition to the sovereignty of other Tribal nations. In other words, the proposal from Sneed and Barnes used NCAI – whose mission is to “defend tribal sovereignty” within a long history of termination policies in the United States – to blackball American Indian nations and to stoke the idea that “Federal Recognition” is the only barometer or measurement for Indigenous sovereignty in the United States. Their ‘solution’ was that only American Indians with “Federal Recognition” ought to be able to vote and push forward policy within NCAI.
My critique of this moment has as many layers as a Lumbee chocolate cake – – and that’s a lot of layers!
My first response is that Cherokee and Shawnee claims within this proposal to NCAI simply make no sense. Recognition of an American Indian tribe by a state in the United States is just as important as recognition of an American Indian tribe by the Federal government of the United States. However, that statement of fact – that state recognition is just as important as federal recognition – is being progressively pinched by Indigenous academicians who see it as their duty to conflate state recognition with “pretendianism”. See for example a talk by Kim Tallbear at University of Vermont in early 2023 where she states that:
I am not a legal expert, but there is mounting opposition to state recognition. There are American Indian legal scholars saying it is un-constitutional – – and states should not be in the business of state recognition.
If this argument is in fact being made by American Indian legal scholars, it is absurd. In a Federalist System, which is what the United States is, recognition between sovereigns is just that >> recognition between sovereigns.
Nevertheless, what the Cherokee/Shawnee proposal to NCAI does not mention – and it behooves them not to mention it as they attempt to participate in ethnic cleansing – is that the largest target of their proposal, the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, was recognized by the U.S. Government through legislation in 1956. (Here is a great article that explains how/why this happened.) However, I will take the opportunity here to say that 1956 legislation (called the “LUMBEE ACT”) that recognized the Lumbee Tribe is current and it (1956 LUMBEE ACT) simply needs to be congressionally updated to give the Lumbee Tribe full, un-filtered access to “services” that were limited in the original 1956 LUMBEE ACT legislation. (You can see the term “services” used in the 1956 LUMBEE ACT here). Assumptions or arguments that the Lumbee Tribe was “terminated” are false. Meanwhile, to say that Lumbee people are not Federally Recognized is a lie. The Lumbee Tribe is Federally Recognized by the United States Government.
The current actions by Cherokee and Shawnee leaders are an attempt to hammer nails into a termination coffin that does not exist. Indeed, their recent proposal to NCAI is a distraction from a HUGE elephant in the room: the 1956 LUMBEE ACT must be modernized to initiate all the benefits of Federal Recognition (e.g. healthcare) for Lumbee people. There is no need to go through the Bureau of Indian Affairs to achieve this. As an already Federally Recognized tribal nation, the Lumbee Tribe is well beyond conversations about authenticity. The Lumbee Tribe is looking to correct the insufficiencies of the 1956 LUMBEE ACT.
With that established, we must consider why the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and their sister Tribes seek to rip the Lumbee Tribe and tribes who are not currently recognized by the U.S. Federal Government from spaces and positions of prominence within Indian Country. For the last half a century, Cherokee government leaders have been captivated by a mysterious argument that Lumbee people stole their identity: “Cherokee”. They insist that because most Lumbees were not on the Trail of Tears that we (Lumbees) must have not been authentic or real “Indians”. They insist that we look at their experiences on the Trail of Tears as reason to trust their assessment of current Indian politics.
What Cherokee people often won’t admit or do not understand is that “Cherokee” was used (and continues to be used?) to describe and make sense of American Indians all over the U.S. Southeast. Indeed, the term “Cherokee” is what other tribes called the people who are now Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, and Keetoowah. (I believe that that was the spirit of why Keetoowah people continue to assert an identity separate from the Cherokee Nation. But other scholars will have to confirm that.) So, if we are to be fair, and not dismissing Cherokee suffering within early 1800s era of “removal”, it is their identities – their constant insistence that Cherokee community and suffering is a standard for measurement of all Indian experiences – that is getting in the way of efforts to protect Indigenous sovereignty across the United States.
The perfume of Cherokee-led political butchery of other Indian tribes is easily detectable as you look across the American landscape. See, for example, Sneed’s 2020 meeting with the Atlanta “Braves”. In a televised interview with “Braves” media, Sneed discusses Cherokees as a “super power on this continent”. Afterward, an Eastern Cherokee historian, Laura Blythe, states that the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians were the “people who stayed behind” after removal – – after the Trail of Tears.
This campaign by the “Braves” to shine light on Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians was ironic for two reasons. First, it stymied efforts within tribal nations and community centers to end the dehumanization of American Indians through mascots. Second, it made a case about Eastern Band of Cherokee presence – that Eastern Band of Cherokee should be celebrated because they “stayed” – that conflicted with narratives that the Cherokee Nation and other Indian leaders in Oklahoma made about the Lumbee Tribe. See, for example, a video recently produced by the “United Indian Nations of Oklahoma” and officially supported by prominent organizations like United Southern and Eastern Tribes (USET) in which they attempt to assert that Lumbees are not American Indian by stating that being removed from North Carolina and from the U.S. Southeast is a marker of authenticity. For example, a tribal council member for Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians says:
We have family in nameless graves from here (North Carolina) to Oklahoma that died on the Trail of Tears that were forced to leave their homeland. Our people died on that trail – – where were you at? Where was your group at?
If we are to be honest, some of us (Lumbees) were at meeting points on the boundary between North Carolina and Tennessee – – when we saw what was happening (e.g. the imprisonment of Indian people). We fled. We stayed back just like people who became Eastern Band of Cherokee Indian. Some of us (Lumbees) went with various tribes. For example, there are Lumbee surnames in the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. Where did these names come from? Lumbee ancestors had deep relationships with Choctaw people going back into the Revolutionary War days … and before.
In 2020, when Sneed was criticizing Lumbee recognition efforts on Facebook, I wrote to him that despite the fact that anti-Lumbee politics had become the center of Cherokee politics, and despite a fairly substantial history of Cherokee people hunting American Indians in eastern North Carolina (a history that we must discuss in depth!), Cherokee people have recruited Lumbee people to guide critical aspects of their community. In particular, I was thinking of the hiring of Lumbee educational expert Rose Marie Lowry-Townsend as head of Eastern Band of Cherokee schools back in 2007.
Was Lowry-Townsend, as a Lumbee, “Indian” enough? It seems so. Perhaps more importantly, Cherokee people utilized her Lumbee expertise within a particularly fragile school system- – a place where Cherokee language was being taught and where Cherokee children were forming their identities as Cherokees and as citizens of Indian Country – – to guide and protect Cherokee community.
Speaking of education…
We are in the midst of a national and continental process of healing from boarding schools. Not only was Rose Marie Lowry-Townsend hired for her ability to turn Cherokee schools around – to make Cherokee education work – she was also hired in the midst of (what was then) undiscussed trauma from boarding schools in the eastern United States. I will not get into an in-depth conversation here, but it is important to note that Ben Barnes, who co-signed the proposal to the NCAI to reduce Lumbee people to non-voting members of NCAI, is on the board of The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition. What does it mean that this board doesn’t have Lumbee people on it? (In my upcoming book, Lumbee Pipelines, I discuss the presence of Lumbee children at boarding schools in the mid-to-late 1800s and early 1900s.) What does it mean that one of the people responsible for guiding the healing of Indian communities post-boarding school is also in the business of blackballing and removing important voting rights from nations that boarding school students came from and birthed?
Lastly, Cherokee-led ethnic cleansing within NCAI is justified through arguments that Cherokee people are protecting their “sovereignty”. This is not only genocidal in the spirit of Adolph Hitler (again, Hitler’s holocaust was fueled by arguments that Jews impeded German sovereignty), it is strictly against NCAI rules of engagement. NCAI has rules that state that one tribal nation member of NCAI cannot attack or attempt to harm another member nations. NCAI, from its inception, was an organization of tribal nations that existed as a response to colonial policies aimed at permanently beheading American Indian nations.
Here is where we must pull out the proverbial nails of ethnic cleansing.
This is not the time for Indian people to be silent. Yes, we have interests that are based in our tribal nations, but the work of Cherokee people to de-frock – to undermine – Lumbee sovereignty is both genocidal and weird (especially when you consider the fact that Cherokee people and Lumbee people regularly coalesce and collaborate within religious, educational, and economic enterprises). We must lean into the voice of Vine Deloria – Executive Director of NCAI in the mid-20th Century – who regularly defended Lumbee sovereignty and Lumbee identity within NCAI. He ensured that NCAI would not (should not) function as a tool of Indian Termination.
This is also time for us to better understand what extra-tribal unions like “United Tribes of Oklahoma” and the new coalition of Cherokee mean for the future of Indian sovereignty. How are we supposed to defend or justify confederacies of tribal nations that are formed entirely or primarily to participate in ethnic cleansing of Indian Country? They are not defending their own sovereignties. Are they a new type of “super power” (to use Sneed’s term in his interview with the “Braves”)? Are their “super powers” showing up within the pandemic of “disenrollment” in places like California, Rhode Island and Washington? This is a huge conversation.
Perhaps we ought to pay attention to the words of U.S. Senator Thom Tillis who called out the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and Cherokee Nation – and the Chickasaw Nation and the Mississippi Choctaw – for leading what he considers to be a national “disrespect” for Lumbee people.
However, “disrespect” isn’t the appropriate word. This is genocide.
In many Jewish communities, leaders say: “never again”. They oppose persecution, detention and deportation of Jews because they are Jews. Given the long history of persecution, detention and disenrollment (termination) of American Indians in the United States, why don’t we say “never again” as a follow-up and response to the Cherokee-fueled proposal to NCAI ? I believe that in states of ongoing genocide, genocide comes from unlikely places…from unlikely partnerships…from unlikely empires.