Saturday, March 21, 2009

Lumbee Indian Histories: Race, Ethnicity, and Indian Identity in the Southern United States

From H-Net - Humanities and Social Sciences

Gerald M. Sider. _Lumbee Indian Histories: Race, Ethnicity, and
Indian Identity in the Southern United States_. Cambridge,
England: Cambridge University Press, 1993. xxvi + 309 pp. Maps,
notes, essay on sources, and index. $65.00 ea. (cloth); $17.95
ea. (paper).

Review by Wallace Genser , University of Michigan,
for H-Ethnic

The Politics of Indian Identity

_Lumbee Indian Histories_ is the second volume of Gerald Sider's
three volume effort to provide "a theory of culture in history:
the role of culture in the formation and transformation of
systems of inequality" (p. v). Sider's ambitious and
theoretically sophisticated work seeks to bridge the gap between
anthropological and historical approaches to Native American
Studies by using the case of the Lumbee--a small group of Native
Americans living in Robeson county in south central North
Carolina--to explore Lumbee ethnogenesis and redefinition in the
context of colonial conquest and subsequent oppression. Sider
traces the transformation of Lumbee identity--both self-identity
and the identities imposed upon them by their colonial
masters--from contact to the present to illustrate how
colonialism has shaped the identity of these peoples and their
descendants (and by extension Native peoples throughout the
southeastern United States). Sider's work nicely complements
recent works such as David Roediger's _Towards the Abolition of
Whiteness_ (1994) exploring the emergence and transformation of
"whiteness" by reminding us of the ongoing transformation of
"redness" in American culture. Attention to this crucial process
places _Lumbee Indian Histories_ at the forefront of recent
research striving to understand the constructed nature of ethnic
and racial identity.

In telling the story of the Lumbee, Sider takes the reader on a
journey backward from the recent past to the era of first contact
between these peoples and Europeans. Sider begins by describing
the internal conflicts--between those who continued to think of
themselves as "Lumbee" and a smaller group who began calling
themselves "Tuscarora"--which rent these people when Sider
arrived among them in 1967 (Sider has spent parts of the past
three decades as an activist among the Lumbee). Sider sees this
split growing partly out of conflict between relatively well-off
"Lumbee" and more economically hard-pressed "Tuscarora." Those
who embraced the "Lumbee" label had reached a rapprochement with
whites over a limited form of autonomy focused mainly on control
of local schools and cultural institutions. Those who defined
themselves as "Tuscarora" believed that only by embracing an
admittedly problematic identity sanctioned by what Sider and the
Lumbee call "the White power elite" could they attain any level
of self-determination. The Lumbee/Tuscarora split is thus merely
the most recent manifestation of a structural problem embedded in
adopting such a fluid identity: the inevitable emergence of
chronic fractures of community identity.

Sider's point is that this conflict demonstrates how internal
disputes over self-definition reflect and influence the conflicts
over recognition by their colonial masters that have plagued the
Lumbee and their compatriots throughout US history. His ultimate
goal is to illustrate how shifting internal boundaries both
reflect and mediate external conflicts, leading in the case of
Native Americans to increasingly constrained options for
self-determination. Initially invented as "peoples" by European
categories, Sider demonstrates that Southeastern
Natives--particularly those situated on the economically marginal
(at least in white eyes) borderlands between the piedmont and the
coastal plains stretching from New Jersey to Florida--have tried
to use white categories to advance their own interests. Sider
considers the Lumbee the most striking example of those Native
American groups that chose not "acculturation" to white society
but instead crafted fluid identities that permitted them to
maintain a limited measure of autonomy.

Thus, in Sider's words, "ethnicity does not simply emerge from
history; history is created within ethnicity." His most telling
insight regarding the interconnections among dynamic variables
that scholars of various stripes have often taken for granted is
his claim that "If impoverishment and domination shape ethnicity
and ethnicity, when seen as a process, creates and claims
histories, then oppression creates history through culture as
well as class" (pp. 114-5). This dynamic formulation of identity
formation, stressing the interrelationships among economic
exploitation, historical consciousness, culture, and ethnicity,
allows Sider to link these processes instead of falling into the
all too common trap of discussing each process in isolation.

Lumbee identity emerged in an ongoing dialectical process in
concert with US government efforts to fit them into rigid racial
categories. Over the past two hundred years the Lumbee have
repeatedly had their official "identity" changed by the US
government. Initially the Lumbee were not identified as
"Indians" at all; instead, they possessed most of the rights of
those residents considered "white," which permitted them to
straddle the new nation's racial boundaries. When North Carolina
revised its constitution in 1835 they were lumped with free
African Americans as "Free Persons of Color," a designation that
remained in effect until emancipation. The Civil War, while
freeing them of this designation, nonetheless left the Lumbee
experiencing much of the discrimination faced by those considered
"'non-White.'" In 1885 North Carolina formally recognized them
as "Indians," thereby setting off a century of struggle over just
what kind of "Indians" they were and what associated benefits and
constraints "Indian" identity imposed upon them (pp. xv-xvi).

Termed "Croatan Indians" in 1885, they rejected this term because
local whites had shortened it to "Cro"--implicitly linking them
with African Americans suffering under "Jim Crow" laws--and won
recognition in 1911 as "Indians of Robeson County." This generic
name was replaced by "Cherokee Indians of Robeson County" in
1913, which itself set off conflict with Cherokee from elsewhere
in North Carolina who feared that their governmental benefits
might be proportionally reduced to accommodate these "new"
Cherokee (a dynamic that continues to divide established Native
American groups from groups seeking tribal recognition today).
After nearly gaining national recognition during the New Deal as
"Siouan Indians of the Lumber River," they secured designation as
"Lumbee Indians" from North Carolina in 1953 and from the US
government in 1956.
In keeping with the Eisenhower administration's policy of
"terminating" tribal rights, Congress stipulated that the US
government would be completely free of legal or financial
obligations toward these people (pp. 3-4). While struggling with
local whites, neighboring Native Americans, and the state and
national governments, the Lumbee were also divided over how to
identify themselves in a way that aptly conveyed their historical
past, their cultural present, and their aspirations for the
future. The Lumbee/Tuscarora split, Sider makes clear, is thus
connected to longstanding internal disputes over how to
characterize their heritage in order to forge a history both
usable to themselves and useful in dealing with their conquerors.
Yet each dispute, Sider argues, emerges out of a specific
historical context and reflects both the demands of the colonizer
and the strivings of the colonized.

Throughout US history whites have maintained control over the
Lumbee through control of land, access to credit, power over
local schools, vote buying, and the small but significant efforts
of white political "paternalism" (p. 97) to siphon off just
enough Native American votes to prevent Native American/African
American coalitions (which Sider inexplicably poses as almost
"natural" alliances) from attaining political victories. A
particularly effective white tactic was the outlawing in 1956 of
"single shot voting" in multiposition Democratic primary
elections. Rather than permitting Native Americans or African
Americans to take a "single shot" vote for the one Native
American or African American in a field crowded with white
candidates, the Democratic party forced voters to vote for as
many candidates as there were seats to be filled, thus diluting
minority voting influence and forcing them to help defeat their
own candidates (pp. 93-5). Within these agricultural, financial,
educational, and political realms, Native Americans struggled to
define their identities and to carve out a place for themselves
within this oppressive system. Sider convincingly demonstrates
that these processes were intimately related. As Sider aptly
puts it, "the capacity of a dominated people to attack their
domination precisely in its own terms and with its own symbols .
. . is often limited. . . . A more effective source of
oppositional autonomy seems to lie in a dominated people
appropriating as their own, and refashioning, the contradictions
imposed on them" (p. 99). Whether they were refashioning their
identities in efforts to wrest recognition from governmental
agencies, running their own community institutions, striving to
survive economically on a daily basis, or mobilizing politically
to elect Native American candidates, the Lumbee never
surrendered. It is in this continuing struggle that Sider finds
hope for the future.

Sider intends his work for both general and academic readers.
Each audience will find much of value here. The general reader
will be drawn into the story of how the Lumbee were
transformed--and transformed themselves--from a largely
autonomous precontact people (although Sider does not explore
their colonial roots) to a people surviving on the periphery of
"White" (Sider capitalizes the term throughout) society.
Scholars interested in how local developments resonate with
issues of personal identity will appreciate Sider's valuable
chronology of Lumbee transformations. Historians of Native
American culture will find a compelling formulation of the
challenges and choices available to peoples confronting US
economic and cultural expansion. Ethnic Studies scholars will be
rewarded with a carefully crafted presentation of racial and
ethnic identity as a dynamic process influenced by a multiplicity
of shifting variables. And scholars from several disciplines
will find in Sider's theoretical apparatus a nuanced exploration
of the innumerable and often conflicting connections among class,
race, ethnicity, and culture.

Each of these audiences will also find flaws in Sider's work.
The general reader will sometimes feel overwhelmed by a dense
writing style that occasionally opts for academic jargon over
clarity. Scholars interested in the development of local
community institutions and struggles will search in vain for full
exploration of the political context of Robeson County. Scholars
of Native American studies will seek a more sensitive treatment
of how oral traditions may subtly support a persisting
counter-hegemonic ethos among the Lumbee rather than merely
reflect the triumphant inscription of colonial values in the
minds of subjugated peoples. While Sider often accepts Native
American accounts of heroic resistance--such as Henry Berry
Lowery's famous outlaw band, "the Robin Hoods of Robeson County"
(p. 158), which raided wealthy white farmers during and after the
Civil War and distributed their booty to poor residents of all
races--Sider neglects to incorporate such a counter-hegemonic
ethos into his account of Lumbee history.

Ethnic Studies scholars, and all those interested in the gendered
nature of human experience, will be disappointed in finding that
for all Sider's theoretical sophistication no mention is made of
female versions of Lumbee history. Despite recognition that
Lumbee women played crucial economic and cultural roles among the
Lumbee from the deerskin trade to tobacco farming to textile
manufacturing, Sider never addresses how women's experiences of
colonialism compared with those of men's.
Consideration of these issues in the context of Sylvia Van Kirk's
pioneering _Many Tender Ties_ (1980) on western Canadian fur
trading women would greatly expand the reach of Sider's work.
Without such a balanced approach to the gender-specific
experiences of colonized peoples, Sider's approach will offer
only a partial account of the development and transformation of
Lumbee ethnicity.

Moreover, for all its theoretical sophistication and insight into
the persistent struggles of the Lumbee for recognition from their
more powerful neighbors, these neighbors are never given full
form. Lacking are fleshed out versions--or even brief
accounts--of the internal tensions dividing the white and Black
communities of Robeson County. Incorporating the insights of
Steven Hahn's _Roots of Southern Populism_ (1983) and James O.
Horton's _Free People of Color_ (1993) would avoid such
monolithic portrayals of these diverse communities. Sider
understandably emphasizes white solidarity and briefly mentions
the greater racial unity among Black residents. Discussion of
the comparative makeups of each group is needed, however, to
provide a fuller sense of the tensions and cleavages within these
groups that Lumbee peoples have attempted to exploit in order to
forge politically and culturally functional group identities.

Fellow historians will perhaps be jolted, as I was, by Sider's
conceptualization of what he calls the "problem" embedded in "the
connection between doing anthropology and doing history." In his
view, the most crucial question facing a scholar is "*how
studying the history of a people, questioning them about their
history, and doing documentary research on their past affects
your relations with the people among whom you live and work*" (p.
xxiii, italics in original). Many historians would ask a quite
different question: How do your relations with the people you
study affect your and their conceptualizations of their past?
This question is particularly relevant in Sider's case, given
that he traces the genesis of several popular contemporary terms
among the Lumbee--"tied mule stories," "locality leader," "the
Movement," and "the organization"--to his 1971 dissertation on
the Lumbee. These terms have been embraced by local peoples and
have "entered into the local political and academic discourse"
(pp. 298-9), thus suggesting that changing conceptualizations of
Lumbee history emerge not just from "impoverishment and
domination" but also from the efforts of a local activist with a
quite different agenda. When one becomes as involved with one's
subjects as Sider has, full recognition of one's own part in
shaping that history is crucial.

Evidentiary issues also merit attention. Historians may find
Sider's lack of footnotes troubling. Much of his work grows out
of conversations with co-workers and selected readings in
cultural theory, and these sources are only addressed briefly in
his "Sources and Perspectives" section. More attention to recent
historical works on Native Americans in the region such as James
H. Merrell's _The Indians' New World_ (1989) (which Sider briefly
cites) and Karen I. Blu's _The Lumbee Problem_ (1980) (which he
also cites but does not use extensively) is needed. Historians
will be vexed occasionally by Sider's use of confidential sources
and his determination to emphasize his special ties as an
activist among the Lumbee. This determination becomes especially
evident in his essay on sources. He obliquely contests
authorship of a key source without clarifying the "other
concerns" motivating the misattribution (p. 291). He also
provides "silences as requested" regarding his sources (p. 305)
and defers to several local residents who read his manuscript and
requested that he avoid "identify[ing] some of the participants"
in a crucial court case (p. 294). While Sider's respect for his
sources' anonymity is admirable, such self-censorship presents a
problem in a work ostensibly tracing "*How Native American
peoples see, claim, and seek to shape--in sum, produce--their own
history*" (p. xvii, italics in original).

Sider's self-conscious and passionately unapologetic involvement
with the Lumbee provides a refreshing rejoinder to scholars who
imagine themselves clinically detached from their subjects.
While it is reassuring to be reminded that anthropologists have
become cognizant of and open about personal entanglements with
peoples they study, Sider's approach leads to another potential
pitfall: the transformation of scholar into crusading journalist
protecting his sources with an eye toward providing the only
possible credible version of events. While protecting his
sources reveals Sider's respect for individuals who may be
vulnerable to retaliation, in the end it necessarily limits
discussion by claiming journalistic and personal prerogative to
present an irrefutable version of a people's past. Maintaining a
balance between the demands of historical analysis and loyalty to
one's sources is by no means easy, and such editorial decisions
are the very stuff of historical discourse. At the very least,
Sider's approach can open up debate over just how this ground can
be negotiated.

In sum, _Lumbee Indian Histories_ offers many contributions to
Native American history, ethnic studies, and cultural history.
Sider's work sheds fresh light on the formation of Native
American identity in one North Carolina county, offers a
sophisticated model for understanding the emergence and
transformation of racial and ethnic identity, and provides a
convincing account of the intimate and often perplexing
connections between cultural identity and collective memory.
Perhaps most importantly, _Lumbee Indian Histories_ presents
scholars with an opportunity to reexamine our own
involvement--intellectually and in many cases politically--with
the peoples we seek to study.

Wallace Genser, University of Michigan, for H-Ethnic

Copyright ) 1996 by H-Net, all rights reserved. This work may be
copied for non-profit educational use if proper credit is given
to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact


  1. all other native american nations as well as tribes of each native american nation have their own langage--- where is the "lumbee" langage anybody know because the "lumbee" don't know!!! my point is simple these sooner's--- sooner be one race as another need to strive for themselves instead of riding on the coat tale of "real native american people" that have a real history as well as blood, heart, and spirit in the many struggles and few victories that "my" forefathers have given "me and mine"

  2. Reply to Anonymous:
    No we are not sooners'...check your grammatical errors. What language have you adopted. I am proud of my heritage. I have succeeded in life more than you can imagine. It is apparent to me that you are the "SOONER". I hope you find your way and be proud of who you are. Please do not judge people on your narrow concept of people who have tried to claim who they are; not what someone thinks they should be.

  3. Native Americans here in North Carolina were highly encouraged to loose their old ways and quickly learned to become like their White Christian neighbors so as not to be removed from their homes. It is sad but that is how a language is lost over time.

  4. To the anonymous poster from Sept 1, 2010:

    I love all my Native people, even the ones who don't accept NC Natives as "real Indians." Let's ponder this thought for a second...if Columbus had "discovered" the West Coast of the US first, then as the first point of contact western tribes would have experienced the same cultural degredation that we had on the East coast. As the first point of contact, your language would have been lost and your population would have been nearly erased by disease. Then we (East Coast Natives) could comment on how "real" of an Indian you are.

  5. Sharing of comments and downing ones cultural is one reason why the almighty white man control all non whites. We must stand together as a people to over come such take over and cultural desegregation. The white man love to hear us argue with each other no matter what tribe or race other then white. This how we as a people show weakness to the controller. I am petty should we red skin American as we were so rudely call got the same treatment at one time or another.