Rindfleisch on Lowery, 'Lumbee Indians in the Jim Crow South: Race, Identity, and the Making of a Nation'

Malinda Maynor Lowery
Bryan Rindfleisch

Malinda Maynor Lowery. Lumbee Indians in the Jim Crow South: Race, Identity, and the Making of a Nation. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010. xxvi + 339 pp. $65.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8078-3368-1; $21.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8078-7111-9.

Reviewed by Bryan Rindfleisch (University of Oklahoma) Published on H-NC (August, 2011) Commissioned by Judkin J. Browning

Factionalism, Colonialism, and Racial Identity: The Lumbee Indians in the Twentieth-Century

Malinda Maynor Lowery provides an insightful analysis of the bitterly contentious issue regarding the “Indianness” of the Lumbee Indians from North Carolina, a controversy that continues to reverberate today. Similar to historian Claudio Saunt’s Black, White, and Indian: The Unmaking of an American Family (2005), which traced the intrusion of Euro-American racial hierarchies and attitudes among the Creek Indians in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Lowery examines how Western conceptions of race developed among the Lumbee to the detriment of these peoples. She proposes that these racial definitions of difference enshrined in the segregated South exacerbated crises of identity and fostered indigenous factionalism among these native peoples who intermarried and interacted with African American slaves and freedmen during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Yet contrary to expectations of declension, Lowery asserts the Lumbee Indians negotiated these internal and external pressures by building “new layers of identity” that balanced indigenous political contestation, augmented a traditional “identity as a people connected by family and place,” and resisted white Americans’ imposition of colonial control and racial hierarchy (p. xv).

To accomplish her objectives, Lowery first confesses to her readers that in researching and writing this book, she had to confront her own Lumbee heritage regardless of the potential and painful animosities that might surface, particularly when examining the political antagonisms among the Lumbee themselves. In doing so, Lowery utilizes “auto-ethnography,” or the analysis of how a colonial “culture and society have affected one’s experiences,” to elicit a “Lumbee way of seeing the world” that could then be inserted into “the more conventional narrative of political history” (p. xvi). As a consequence of this methodology and self-exploration, Lowery suggests that native political factionalism more closely resembled the “Lumbee’s articulation of their [many] identities” that intersected and conflicted throughout the twentieth century (p. xvi). In short, Lowery demonstrates that the Lumbee, far from fading out of the historical narrative like the pervasive “vanishing Indian” trope of that era, confronted and even challenged the colonialist hegemony of the United States by expressing their multifaceted identities and political autonomy that at times coincided (and necessitated partnership) with the Jim Crow racial system, yet at other times defied the racial expectations of white Americans who sought to subject indigenous peoples to the supposedly civilizing influences of American culture.

Beginning in the late nineteenth century, Lowery charts the initial efforts of the Lumbee, known in 1885 as the “Croatan Indians,” to gain “control over some of their own affairs” through access to the American educational system, which required accentuating their Indian-white ancestry while deemphasizing their Indian-black lineage (p. 21). As a deliberate strategy to avoid the stigmatization associated with “blackness” in the segregated South, the Lumbee Indians “adopt[ed] segregation to affirm [their] distinctiveness,” in essence seeking education and the prospects of socioeconomic opportunity, mobility, and political autonomy at the cost of conforming to a racial hierarchy that forever complicated the internal dynamics of the Lumbee peoples (p. 31). By pitting indigenous peoples of “mixed-ancestry” against those who collaborated with white southerners in segregation, the Lumbee “pulled apart more often than they pulled together on many issues,” primarily due to an enterprising leadership elite who enjoyed white Americans’ political and economic patronage (p. 60). Yet Lowery illustrates the advent of a middling class among the Lumbee Indians (the “Siouans”), who aspired to establish the town of Pembroke in hopes of “leading the Indian people in a direction toward greater autonomy and freedom from white control,” tested the collaborationist elites’ leadership, and contributed to the emerging political factionalism that defined Lumbee politics throughout the twentieth century (p. 75).  

In particular, the contest between the “Croatans” and “Siouans” manifested most visibly in the twentieth-century battle over federal recognition, a struggle that involved white southerners, the North Carolina legislature, the Office of Indian Affairs (OIA), and Congress. As the Croatans allied with local whites and the state government for congressional recognition, the Siouans sought the aid of the OIA to pursue the same goal. In the end, neither faction achieved legitimacy and instead each found itself even further fractured along “ideological lines” concerning which identity (Croatan, Siouan, or later “Cherokee” when Lumbee elites abandoned the Croatan name) offered the greatest means for autonomy within the racial hierarchy of the South. Yet shortly thereafter amid the “Indian New Deal,” Lumbee political factions once again confronted one another over recognition. Whereas the federal government and commissioner of Indian affairs John Collier sought to impose social and political unity and order on native peoples with the invention of “tribes” and quantification of “Indianness” by “blood,” the Siouan faction conformed to these federal demands while the Croatan/Cherokee elites aligned with the state and local whites in opposition. This continuous contestation came to a particular head in the battle over economic resources and opportunities embodied in the federally sponsored Pembroke Farms, designed to promote the economic self-sufficiency and autonomy of the Lumbee Indians divested of white southerners’ influence, over which the Siouans successfully managed to wrestle control from their elite rivals.

Yet coinciding with this economic development, the “Enrollment Commission” through “blood quantum” analysis stipulated that only twenty-two out of the hundreds of Siouan and Croatan/ Cherokee Indians qualified for federal recognition (having one-half or more of Indian “blood”). These “Original 22,” comprising rural Lumbee of the Siouan faction rather than its middling leadership or the elites of the Croatans/Cherokees, embodied an “elevated political influence of rural [Lumbee] Indians” who then constituted themselves as the Brooks Settlement Longhouse, closed to both Siouan and Croatan/Cherokee influence while competing for economic resources and opportunities against the Pembroke Farms community, all of which even further exacerbated the identity crisis and “ambiguous political status” plaguing the Lumbee Indians throughout the twentieth century (p. 218).

As if the political factionalism of the Lumbee Indians did not require further aggravation, the federal government’s campaign to terminate native polities and relocate indigenous peoples to urban centers in the aftermath of World War II accelerated the divisiveness of these Indian peoples. To combat termination, the Original 22 and other rural native peoples reinvented themselves as the “Lumbee” Indians and accentuated their “Indian distinctiveness” while their Siouan and Croatan/Cherokee rivals (mainly the middling and elite leaderships) stressed their “whiteness,” assimilationist accomplishments, and constituted themselves as the “Lumbee Brotherhood” (p. 241). Consequently, the federal government sided with the Lumbee Brotherhood and passed legislation in 1956 that legitimated the existence of a “Lumbee” tribe, which in turn provoked the rural Indians’ resentment and counterproposals to be federally recognized as “Tuscaroras” (invoking an Iroquoian past from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries), a struggle that continues to this day. In conclusion, Lowery stipulates that the Lumbee Indians themselves cannot be solely blamed for the mass political confusion over identity and race; that the racism of white southerners and “government’s control over Indian identity” fostered such “tribal factionalism” and “intrude[s] on the sovereign ability of tribes to determine their own identity criteria” (p. 248).

To her credit, Lowery utilizes a wealth of primary sources, both written and oral, that enhance the power of her insights and conclusions. In addition to traditional government documentary records, Lowery employs native sources such as tribal rolls and applications, marriage and birth records, church membership lists, newspapers, Siouan and Croatan/Cherokee council records, censuses, genealogical trees, and legal briefs. Additionally, Lowery relies on oral interviews with historical and contemporary Lumbee peoples to evoke the native perspective she outlined in her preface. Finding them in Penn State University’s Oral History Project, the Adolph Dial tapes, the Lumbee River Fund collection, narratives of the federal relocation and resettlement programs, and personal interviews, Lowery weaves these voices throughout her study to create a more sympathetic and real portrayal of the internal factionalism and external pressures that mounted against the Lumbee Indians throughout the twentieth century.

Further, Lowery’s engagement with the existing historical literature on indigenous identity and twentieth-century native history stands a testament to her exemplary scholarship. Continually throughout her work, she joins the historical discourse concerning the complexities and problems of native identity in the twentieth century, citing such scholars as Philip J. Deloria, Alexandra Harmon, Joanne Nagel, Eva Marie Garroutte, and Melissa Mayer. By doing so, Lowery adds yet another perspective on the adaptations indigenous peoples developed in response to the Euro-American colonialism that threatened the integrity of native identities. Similarly, Lowery ably negotiates the scholarship on twentieth-century Indian history, working within (and in some cases beyond) the frameworks established by Frederick E. Hoxie, Francis Paul Prucha, Kenneth Philp, Charles Wilkinson, Daniel Cobb, and Thomas Biolsi. But of even greater significance are Lowery’s contributions to the scholarly discourse over “blood” and “race” among indigenous peoples in the twentieth century, which augment the insights provided by historians of southeastern and Oklahoma Indians (like Tiya Miles, Theda Purdue, Celia Naylor, and Circe Sturm) and transplant such scholarship to North Carolina to enhance her own conclusions.

However, Lowery’s scholarship is not infallible and contains a number of distractions that inhibit the strength of her conclusions. First of all, she does not fully achieve the Lumbee perspective that she set out to capture in her prologue, most likely a consequence of her focus on the political activism and factionalism of the Lumbee Indians. As a result, the daily lives of these peoples (particularly the rural ones who predominated in Lumbee society) are often relegated to the margins of Lowery’s narrative or even omitted. For instance, when she describes the importance of education and churches to the Lumbee or the many indigenous peoples who took part in the federal relocation program, the experiences and relations (both intra- and interracial) of these peoples in those schools, chapels, and urban centers are absent, which leaves a gap in her objective to attain a truly Lumbee perspective of the twentieth century. Additionally, Lowery trumpets her desire to amalgamate Indian history with the larger American narrative of the twentieth century, yet neglects to discuss the important contributions of Indian activists, who no doubt included Lumbee Indians of North Carolina, during the Cold War and civil rights eras and their involvement in the dialogue over race and blood with the federal government and other indigenous peoples. 

Yet despite these minor detractions, Lowery offers scholars of twentieth-century Indian and American history an indigenous perspective on the trials a particular native people faced concerning their identities, racial hierarchies, and American colonialism. In fact, Lowery’s work may even rival the emotional power of Ned Blackhawk’s Violence Over the Land: Indians and Empires in the Early American West (2006). Both authors speak with indigenous authenticity, elicit a native voice, detail the consequences of Euro-American hegemony, and chronicle how native peoples adapted, subverted, or even participated in such colonial violence. But on a more intimate level, these two scholars and their narratives are perfectly attuned to and determined to unmask a Euro-American colonialism that continues to affect indigenous peoples throughout the world today.  

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Citation: Bryan Rindfleisch. Review of Lowery, Malinda Maynor, Lumbee Indians in the Jim Crow South: Race, Identity, and the Making of a Nation. H-NC, H-Net Reviews. August, 2011. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=33700

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