Analysis: Why Did the Lumbees Vote for Dan Bishop?

Rural North Carolina voters have a history of scrambling simple narratives. In Robeson County, North Carolina, where people of color outnumber whites by 2 to 1, the Democratic candidate won by only a handful of votes. The complex history of the Lumbee Tribe is one reason.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: In the September special election in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District, the Republican winner split the vote evenly with the Democratic candidate in Robeson County. Malinda Maynor Lowery explains why Native Americans, who outnumber whites in Robeson, didn’t necessarily follow the national pattern of supporting the Democratic candidate.

North Carolina’s Ninth Congressional district is not a coherent thing. Typical of gerrymandered maps that stretch the idea of citizens’ shared interests to the breaking point, it runs from the booming suburbs of Charlotte to the quiet farmland of Bladen County. There are parts of the district where new neighborhoods seem to sprout overnight, and parts where whole towns are sinking back into the landscape.

It’s hard to know what exactly counts as a local issue in such a sprawling and separated region. But there was at least one hometown concern that united both Republican Dan Bishop and Democrat Dan McCready in September’s special election — long overdue federal recognition for the Lumbee Tribe.

Republican Dan Bishop, left, and Democrat Dan McCready

Two candidates who agreed on little else, and two political parties that did their best to sow division in a low-turnout race, united in calling for the Lumbee people of southeastern North Carolina to finally get their due as a sovereign nation. The 55,000-member tribe is the largest east of the Mississippi, but the federal government has never acknowledged their sovereignty. Since the 1880s, the government has moved the goalpost on what it means to be a recognized tribe — does lineage count? Or treaties? How “civilized” is the group? As soon as the Lumbees check one box, the criteria change.

The congressional district they live in can be a contrived mess, but the Lumbees must prove perfect coherence going back centuries. Never mind the tribe’s strong identification today, tens of thousands of members who recognize one another as a community, abide by a tribal constitution, and cherish a distinct culture with deep ties to the land and all its history. The feds want a tidy backstory.

I don’t know whether McCready and Bishop factored all of that into their support. But they certainly considered the power of the Lumbee vote, which is magnified by the fact that this culturally unified tribe is not at all united at the ballot box. It’s easy to assume that Indian voters would act as a bloc, throwing their weight behind Democratic candidates. And in much of the country, that’s true.

But rural North Carolina has a way of scrambling simple narratives. Lumbees care deeply about civil rights and respect for the poor. But many in the tribe also take conservative positions on abortion and marriage. The economics of the region, too, are a factor. Social Security is a lifeline and Medicaid expansion is compelling, but the idea of limited government also tends to resonate with a people who have been abused and overrun by authority. Free trade agreements like NAFTA, strongly supported by the state’s progressive Democrats in the 1990’s and early 2000’s, left deep scars on the tribe and the region. After spending most of the 20th century being forced to vote for Democrats in a one-party state, the only sure thing is that the Lumbees will make up their own minds.

Political analysts everywhere pointed out that the large share of Republican-voting Lumbees helped shift the close 9th-District race to Bishop, the Republican candidate. That may be true, but the intense focus on partisan divisions is yet another way of sidestepping the bigger issue and the people at the center of it: when will the federal government finally recognize the Lumbees?

The stakes go well beyond the tribe. Federal acknowledgement may be southeastern North Carolina’s best hope for an economic future. Places like Spokane, Washington, and Tulsa, Oklahoma, are thriving thanks in part to the benefits of federal recognition for local tribes. More funding for education, health care, environmental protections, and economic development extends to tribal members but also their neighbors. Whichever party can own up to the injustice against the Lumbees and correct it will secure a victory for the whole state. And whether Bishop can represent the peoples’ shared interests, rather than exploit their divisions, will be the biggest test of all. The Lumbees stand ready to change their minds next time, and the time after that — however many elections it takes to finally get what they deserve.

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