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Laura Dial left Robeson County decades ago looking for new job opportunities.
But Dial, 72, travels nearly 250 miles each year to attend Lumbee Homecoming, a celebration of family, food, and Native American traditions that draws thousands of people to southeast North Carolina.
“It’s always home,” said Dial, who now lives in Anderson, South Carolina.
Some say this year’s event, which ended Saturday with a parade, pow wow, and vendors selling grape ice cream, collard sandwiches, and handcrafted jewelry, was very special.
The celebrations were canceled last year due to the coronavirus pandemic. Then, late last year, the U.S. Senate did not grant the Lumbee tribe any state recognition, despite the support of then-President Donald Trump and President-elect Joe Biden.
It was a blow to the Lumbees, the largest tribe east of the Mississippi with about 55,000 members, most of them in counties Robeson, Hoke, Cumberland and Scotland. Without the designation, the tribe will be denied millions of dollars in federal funds that could help improve people’s lives.
Robeson is one of the poorest, most violent, and least healthy of North Carolina’s 100 counties. Some say racial tension is evident as Robeson County is one of the most diverse counties in the state.
United States MP Dan Bishop, a Republican who represents the state’s ninth district, told the crowd on Saturday that new bills have been tabled in the House and Senate, continuing efforts that began more than a century ago.
“I will not rest until this justice is corrected and the Lumbee receives full federal recognition,” said Bishop. “I came to see what the Lumbee people are about and the love you exude.”
‘TEACHING THE NEW GENERATION’
Jinnie Lowery is one of six women who told their stories in lumBEES: Women of the Dark Water, a play that was performed at the Cape Fear Regional Theater last year. It will take place again this fall at the Givens Performing Arts Center at the University of North Carolina in Pembroke.
Homecoming is about educating young people about the complex history of the Lumbees and reminding them of the importance of protecting the earth and understanding traditional songs and dances, she said.
“We’re teaching the new generation what they mean and how they carry the spirit of their ancestors,” said Lowery, who can trace their ancestors back to the 17th century.
According to tribal history, there is archaeological evidence of Indians in the area that is approximately 14,000 years old. The Lumber River and the swampy land around it reportedly provided isolation from disease and European settlers.
Today approximately 42% of Robeson County’s 130,000 residents are Indians.
The history of Lumbee permeates almost every aspect of life here, including the university. UNCP was originally the Croatan Normal School, founded in 1887 to train Native American teachers. The Raleigh legislature changed the name to Cherokee Indian Normal School of Robeson County in 1913.
Students of other races were allowed to enroll from the 1950s, and the school later became part of the UNC system.
The Lumbee tribe, based in Pembroke, offers employment services and a Boys & Girls Club. The tribe is currently building a village complex to house homeless veterans.
Tribal chairman Harvey Godwin Jr. said the tribe helps shelter 20,000 veterans annually.
“Everyone in this village will be vets to honor them,” he said.
“POSITIVE IN THE COMMUNITY”
While returning home is a festive time for family celebrations and reunions with childhood friends, it can also provide a glimpse into the struggles of the community.
Dial said drugs and crime have become bigger problems since she left the area and it’s hard for her to tell when she’s returning to visit.
Brandy Trent, 29, lives in Lumberton and was selling jewelry and snacks during the Saturday morning homecoming parade. She said the event would be a welcome change.
“You don’t see that,” said Trent. “You look positive in the community.”
Members of Shatter the Silence, a group that campaigns for justice for missing and murdered people in Robeson County, marched in the parade.
The group’s founder, Shelia Price, whose daughter was killed in an unsolved case in 2017, said the goal was to raise awareness about crime.
“At some point,” she said, “enough people will see that we want justice.”
She hopes federal officials will step in to help with unresolved cases.
Despite the challenges, the homecoming offered the Lumbee people the opportunity to dance, laugh, eat and be together.
“I’m happy to be home,” said Dial’s daughter Selena Dial Hamby. “It just didn’t feel right not to be home last year.”