The Lumbee tribe of North Carolina, including approximately 55,000 enrolled members, is the largest Indian community east of the Mississippi River. Lumbee history serves as a window into the roles that Native people have played in the struggle to implement the founding principles of the United States, not just as “the First Americans,” but as members of their own nations, operating in their own communities’ interests. When we see US history through the perspectives of Native nations, we see that the United States is not only on a quest to expand rights for individuals. Surviving Native nations like the Lumbees, who have their own unique claims on this land and its ruling government, are forcing Americans to confront the ways in which their stories, their defining moments, and their founding principles are flawed and inadequate. We know the forced removals, the massacres, the protests that Native people have lodged against injustice, yet such knowledge is not sufficient to understand American history. Lumbee history provides a way to honor, and complicate, American history by focusing not just on the dispossession and injustice visited upon Native peoples, but on how and why Native survival matters. Native nations are doing the same work as the American nation—reconstituting communities, thriving, and finding a shared identity with which to achieve justice and self-determination.
Since the late 19th century, Lumbee Indians have used segregation, war, and civil rights to maintain a distinct identity in the biracial South. The Lumbees’ survival as a people, a race, and a tribal nation shows that their struggle has revolved around autonomy, or the ability to govern their own affairs. They have sought local, state, and federal recognition to support that autonomy, but doing so has entangled the processes of survival with outsiders’ ideas about what constitutes a legitimate Lumbee identity. Lumbees continue to adapt to the constraints imposed on them by outsiders, strengthening their community ties through the process of adaptation itself. Lumbee people find their cohesion in the relentless fight for self-determination. Always, that struggle has mattered more than winning or losing a single battle.