Wayne Cummings grew up in Shannon, North Carolina as part of the Lumbee Indian Tribe. He and his wife, Stephanie have two sons who they are raising in Clayton while still maintaining their Native American heritage.
Q: Could you tell me about the Lumbee tribe?
It’s the largest tribe in North Carolina and has 55,000 recorded members. On Nov. 13 we have having our tribal elections to vote on a new chairperson and some of our districts are up for new chairpersons. After the election we will re-open rolls and we’ll do an end of year census. The members of the tribe are primarily living in the Robeson, Hoke and Scotland county areas.
Q: So were both of your parents members of the tribe?
Yes. Both parents, grandparents and everyone all the way through. Our ancestry was generated originally through the Cheraw and Siouxan speaking tribes. We were based off that combination of people since the early 1700’s. Stephanie is also a member of the tribe. Both of her parents were also members of the tribe. We grew up in Shannon and Red Springs, North Carolina, but I’ve known Stephanie since I was about seven. My grandmother moved to where she grew up, so that’s how I got to meet her.
Q: Are there many Lumbees in Johnston County?
There are Lumbees and other native Americans. We have an organization through the school system now. The Johnston County Indian Act is an organization that we can reach out to native Americans in our schools. This way we can get kids tutoring and supplies. There are two to three hundred native American children in the Johnston County schools.
Q: Are Lumbees recognized as an Indian tribe?
We are. We were recognized from the state of North Carolina in 1885. The United States Congress recognized us as a Native American Tribe in 1956 but they denied us full federal recognition benefits and privileges.
Q: Why is that?
A lot of the congressmen said it was because we didn’t have our own language. But there are other recognized tribes that had lost their own native languages as well. We are still trying to gain that recognition. Having it would mean that the federal government would provide us with health care benefits later in life, scholarships for our kids trying to go to college and continue their education and money to continue cultural development. People always think it would allow us to get into gaming, which it could, but that is not the primary reason we want recognition. We’ve been working toward gaining this recognition long before gaming. The area of North Carolina where the bulk of my tribe lives is incredibly poor. Most of the families earned their living working in the textile industry. Now that that is gone there isn’t much sustaining the people in (the Robeson, Hoke and Scotland) areas. Alcoholism and poverty are everywhere down there. It’s a circle that has been hard to break. If we could gain this federal recognition for the youth the kids of the area would have a chance at an education that could help them break the cycle of poverty and alcoholism.
Q: What have you done to try to gain that recognition?
Since 1956 we’ve created the tribal council that is our governing body of events and happenings within the tribe. They are kind of a middleman between the (US) government and the tribe to get funding appropriations, where to put the money, where to build certain community centers and where to hold activities for the tribe. They do a lot of local government type stuff. The tribal council is in Pembroke and then the rest of the state is made up of districts that each have their own leadership. Those leaders are elected positions. They report to the Pembroke council. We vote based on the district where we grew up. So Stephanie and I vote absentee in the Robeson district.
We also have a constitution that guides our tribal council. We have a working government within ourselves.
There are 440 federally recognized tribes in the U.S. In the state, we are the only one. If we were nationally recognized we would be that largest tribe east of the Mississippi and the ninth largest in the nation. Personally, I feel like the large size of our tribe is holding us back. I feel like if we do get recognition, being as large as we are, it could change the balance of other tribes like the Cherokee, or different tribes like that. We need to get legislators outside of just North Carolina to support us. We need them to stand up and say, “OK, they’ve done what we’ve asked, now let’s follow through.”
Lumbees have fought in every war since the Revolutionary War. We have served the country and been active.
Q: What kind of cultural events do you all maintain?
We have several pow-wows during the year. They’re a lot of fun. My kids attended, but they don’t dance. You can win money and scholarships for that kind of participation, so I’m trying to get them to dance, but they say, “No Dad, that’s embarrassing.” I did it growing up, and we had a lot of fun. People from outside of the tribe are welcome to come and participate. At some point during the pow-wows we have what’s called the “inner circle.” That’s where we bring everyone in and we form a big circle and it’s like a friendship circle. It’s fun.
Q: Did you grow up on a reservation? What was it like growing up as a member of the tribe?
No. We don’t have reservations that people live on. We have cultural land, but no housing.
It was an huge part of my life growing up. Even our churches; we went to an Indian church growing up. It was an Assembly of God church and was open to anyone, but it just happened that pretty much only native Americans went there. The church is really the central part of our community. The traditions of worshipping the moon and the land has broken away from our tribe. We have embraced a more Christian doctrine. The way native people used to worship is not how we believe now. We are a people that is very strong in their church and faith but still love our heritage.
Family has always been a big thing in the tribe, too. We had gatherings every Sunday.
We had a Indian Education Act (IEA) Program. It took native American kids on field trips for cultural field trips. We went to UNCP to see the native American museum there. It has a really nice museum. Where UNCP is now, it used to be the native American school. It was called Croatan Indian Normal School. It was started in 1887.
Correspondent Holly Lock