RALEIGH, N.C. — The Lumbee Indians of North Carolina have crossed a significant hurdle in their quest for federal recognition, as the U.S. House voted this week to approve the tribe's legitimacy.
The legislation that could bring hundreds of millions of tax dollars in housing, education and health benefits to the Lumbees must still pass the Senate, where it would first be considered by the Committee on Indian Affairs. The House approved the measure Thursday by a vote of 256-128.
But supporters were optimistic about the legislation's chances, noting that Sen. Elizabeth Dole, R-North Carolina, a chief sponsor of the bill, was working to persuade both Democrats and Republicans to support it. Sen. Richard Burr, R-North Carolina, also supports the legislation.
"We've never had a vote of this magnitude," Jimmy Goins, the Lumbees' tribal chairman, said after the House vote. "We just believe this gives us a tremendous amount of momentum going into the U.S. Senate."
The issue of federal recognition for the Lumbees has divided North Carolina's members of Congress. In addition, other Indian tribes - including the Eastern Band of Cherokees - have opposed the legislation.
The Lumbee tribe, which claims some 55,000 members, is the largest east of the Mississippi River and would be the third largest tribe nationally to win full federal recognition.
The Lumbee Recognition Act would mean the tribe could gain nearly $500 million dollars in benefits in the first five years, according to the Congressional Budget Office. But the legislation specifically bars the tribe from building a casino after some lawmakers expressed concern about the possibility.
Besides the Cherokee, a group of Tuscarora Indians in North Carolina also has opposed Lumbee recognition, saying the Lumbee aren't Indians but rather a group of mixed-race residents with no significant history.
"I think (the House vote) just showed there's strong arguments and a lot of unanswered questions," said Tuscarora chairwoman Katherine Magnotta.
Three House members from North Carolina - Republicans Patrick McHenry and Walter Jones and Democrat Heath Shuler - also oppose the legislation recognizing the Lumbee Indians.
"There is no Lumbee heritage," said Shuler, whose district includes the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation. "There is no Lumbee reservation."
But Rep. Mike McIntyre, a Lumberton Democrat who has worked to support the tribe, said Congress owed them recognition. Legislation approved 50 years ago recognized the tribe's members as Indians but barred them from seeking benefits or federal recognition through the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
"Congress itself put the Lumbee tribe in Indian no man's land," McIntyre said. "(Thursday's) vote was one for fairness, justice, and long overdue recognition for the Lumbee Indians."
McHenry, Shuler and U.S. Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Connecticut, co-sponsored an amendment requiring the tribe to go through the Bureau of Indian Affairs for recognition, but the House rules committee didn't allow the amendment on the floor.
Shays said the Lumbee Act of the 1950s provided only a name for the tribe and not the benefits.
"It was not intended to make them a tribe with all the benefits," he said. "To come to the floor to suggest that it was more is an outrage. Congress did exactly what they wanted."