The Lumbee Indians of Robeson and surrounding counties have repeatedly failed to win real federal recognition for more than a century, but this time they like their odds. For one thing, they’re pitching it as a $500 million-a-year boost for a poor region. More important, though, they’re defusing an issue that has cast suspicion on their efforts for more than two decades. “This has never been about gambling,” tribal spokesman Alex Baker says. “So we just said, ‘Look, we’ll give that up and write a prohibition into the legislation.’”
Result? Tribal Chairman Purnell Swett smells victory. “We’re closer to getting this passed than we have been in years.” Some say it’s unlikely to pass before year-end, but a spokeswoman for Republican Sen. Richard Burr says he’ll resubmit it in 2011, if necessary.
North Carolina has recognized the tribe, which claims about 55,000 members, since the late 1800s, and Congress in 1956 recognized them as Indians but refused to grant full tribal status. After passage of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988, scores of tribes cashed in, including the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in western North Carolina, where a casino that opened in 1997 has generated more than $2.1 billion.
Part of the Lumbees’ problem is that politicians are reluctant to cast what might seem like a vote for gambling. Another, congressional staffers say, is that other tribes and representatives from their states have lobbied to keep the Lumbees out of the Indian bloc, assuming they would shrink each tribe’s share of federal dollars and build a competing casino near heavily traveled Interstate 95.
Full recognition would bring the Lumbees an estimated $200 million a year in federal payments, and Baker says the total economic impact, as the money passes through local merchants and businesses, is about $500 million. That’s why the Lumbees are willing to give up gambling. “We began seeking recognition in 1888, and Indian gaming didn’t come along until 1988 — 100 years later,” Baker says. “Our grandfathers began seeking recognition for the sole purpose of gaining education funds and other subsidies that would improve lives of our tribe. That remains our goal.”
No sleeping at meetings
Wilmington plans to open its riverside convention center this month, but the hotel that’s supposed to go with it still needs a developer. In September, the city said John Q. Hammons Hotels & Resorts, the only company that had made a viable pitch before the city’s deadline last January, was backing out of the project because it has other obligations and couldn’t get the financing. The Springfield, Mo.-based company had proposed a 14-story, 250-room Embassy Suites, with a full-service restaurant and lounge, top-floor meeting rooms, pool and other amenities. The convention center, which boasts 30,000 square feet of exhibit space, is booking events, but as of Oct. 1, only 25 had been scheduled for next year. City officials were to discuss how to move forward on the hotel at a meeting Oct. 29.