How does a group of people who have American Indian ancestry but no records of treaties, reservations, Native language, or peculiarly “Indian” customs come to be accepted–socially and legally–as Indians?
That question is asked on the jacket of the 2001 printing of The Lumbee Problem–The Making of an American Indian People by anthropologist Karen I. Blu (University of Nebraska Press, 2001; copyright 1980, Karen I. Blu). And that’s just the surface of “the Lumbee problem.”
Suppose Scots-Irish settlers in North Carolina in the early eighteenth century came upon a group of people who in some ways seemed to be indigenous, but spoke seventeenth century English and had English names. History or an episode of the Twilight Zone?
Indeed, this seems to be the history of the Lumbee Indians of North Carolina. But who are they really? Are they Indians? What is their origin?
A prominent theory is that the Lumbees are descendants of Native Americans and survivors of the Lost Colony of North Carolina.
In 1587, a group of colonists under Sir Walter Raleigh’s charter landed in the Outer Banks of what is now North Carolina. This was the second or third group of colonists in the area. One group had returned to England with Sir Francis Drake. The latter group was headed by Governor John White. White returned to England to re-supply the colony; his voyage back to America was delayed by the complications of the English war with Spain and the winter weather. When White did return in 1590, the colonist were gone, but strange “clues” were found. The word “Croatan” was found carved in the wall of a structure that had been built by the colonists. The colonists were never found.
In the early 1700′s, Scots-Irish settlers came upon English-speaking people in the interior of southeastern North Carolina. These people appeared to be of mixed race. It is said that in the early censuses, these people were enumerated as “mulattoes” or “free Negroes.” The people themselves claimed to be Indians. They waged a legal and political struggle in t he nineteenth century for recognition as Indians.
The federal government never has recognized the Lumbee as tribal Indians. In the late 1800′s, the state of North Carolina recognized them as the “Croatan Indians.” This name was not fully satisfactory to the people so designated and in the 1950′s, the name was changed to Lumbee.
The truth of the origins and identity of the Lumbee has been complicated by a number of political and sociological problems. Among these problems would be the fact that there were black people in the area where the Lumbees were found and it may be difficult to tease out which of the “mulattoes” or “free Negroes” were Indian and which were of African descent.
There are several distinct surnames that occur among the Lumbee. These include Oxendine, Chavis, Locklear, Dial, Lowry, and Brayboy, among others. Some of these surnames occur with high frequency among Africian-Americans. Brayboy, for instance, is one of the surnames in my family tree.
My Brayboy ancestors lived in Louisiana and South Carolina. They had been taken to Louisiana in bondage from South Carolina. The question, however, is whether they are related to the Lumbees. Perhaps DNA can solve my Lumbee problem.
I understand that DNA generally cannot pinpoint a specific Native American tribe. But the Lumbee are an especially insular people, thought to number about 40,000, mostly in Robeson County, North Carolina. Under these circumstances, perhaps DNA can tell us about links to the Lumbee.
October 29, 2007 Monday at 1:07 am