Bringing The World Home To You

© 2024 WUNC North Carolina Public Radio
120 Friday Center Dr
Chapel Hill, NC 27517
919.445.9150 | 800.962.9862
91.5 Chapel Hill 88.9 Manteo 90.9 Rocky Mount 91.1 Welcome 91.9 Fayetteville 90.5 Buxton 94.1 Lumberton 99.9 Southern Pines 89.9 Chadbourn
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
4/15/2024 9:30am: We are aware of an issue affecting our website stream on some iOS devices and are working to implement a fix. Thank you!

Pembroke's Lumbee Indian community helps shift Robeson to the right

A large welcome to Pembroke sign in the shape of a drum can be seen at the entrance of town in Pembroke, North Carolina on Dec. 12, 2023.
Cornell Watson
/
for WUNC
A large welcome to Pembroke sign in the shape of a drum can be seen at the entrance of town in Pembroke, North Carolina on Dec. 12, 2023.

This is the fourth installment in our new Main Street NC series from the WUNC Politics Podcast. We're visiting communities across the state to hear from local leaders about the positives going on in their towns, and the challenges they face, from population loss to flooding to aging utility infrastructure.


The Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina is based in Pembroke, and this corner of Robeson County has one of the highest concentrations of American Indians in the state. The U.S. Census estimates that about two-thirds of the residents here identify as Native Americans.

Lumbee culture is everywhere you look in this town, from the two mascots at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke — the Braves and the red-tailed hawk — to the downtown shops that specialize in American Indian arts and crafts.

The Eagle Feather Arts store sells Lumbee regalia, feathers and jewelry, along with the supplies for members of the Lumbee Tribe to create their own.

A sign saying "Republican Women of the Lumber River" can be seen in the window of the RNC community center in Pembroke, North Carolina on Dec. 12, 2023.
Cornell Watson
/
for WUNC
A sign saying "Republican Women of the Lumber River" can be seen in the window of the RNC community center in Pembroke, North Carolina on Dec. 12, 2023.

“If you're looking for something Native American, it's here — from southwest to local, it's here,” said Marco Clark, who works at the shop. Eagle Feather Arts is also something of a community gathering place. On a recent Thursday morning, several older Lumbee gentlemen sat on a couch in the corner swapping stories.

While Pembroke’s population is just about 2,800 people, thousands more descend on the area every July for the annual Lumbee homecoming celebrations — a time for members of the Lumbee Tribe who have moved out of the area to return to Robeson County.

The Lumbee Tribe is also a considerable political force across Robeson County, and it’s had to fight hard throughout its history to gain that political power in local government. Until the 1940s, state legislation banned Pembroke residents from electing their own mayor and town council. Instead, the governor appointed its leaders, ensuring there would be a white majority.

The Lumbee also made national headlines in 1958, when hundreds of them confronted Ku Klux Klan members at a rally and forced them to flee the area. The incident is still a topic of conversation and is known as the Battle of Hayes Pond.

In recent years, many Lumbees have helped shift Robeson County politically from a place with a reliable majority for the Democratic Party to a county that largely supports Republicans.

In 2012, President Barack Obama got 58% of the vote here, and 60% of voters backed Democrat Walter Dalton’s unsuccessful run for governor.

But in 2016, thanks in part to local support for Donald Trump, a narrow majority of Robeson residents voted Republican. And in last year’s election, nearly 60% backed Republican Ted Budd for U.S. Senate along with other GOP candidates. The numbers were bigger in precincts around Pembroke with a high concentration of Lumbee voters.

Republicans have gained ground in many rural counties across North Carolina, due in part to their conservative views on social issues like same-sex marriage and abortion. But in Robeson, it’s not just a change in attitudes on the issues. County leaders say the Democratic Party hasn’t been as active here in recent elections, with fewer visits from candidates.

Meanwhile, the Republican Party has put more resources here. Donald Trump held a rally in Lumberton in 2020, and last year, the Republican National Committee opened a community center in downtown Pembroke.


Jarrod Lowery, a North Carolina state representative from Pembroke, stands for a portrait in the townhall in Pembroke, North Carolina on Dec. 12, 2023.
Cornell Watson
/
for WUNC
Jarrod Lowery, a North Carolina state representative from Pembroke, stands for a portrait in the townhall in Pembroke, North Carolina on Dec. 12, 2023.

To better understand what’s driving the political changes around Pembroke and Robeson County, I sat down with N.C. Rep.Jarrod Lowery, R-Robeson, in the council chambers at Pembroke Town Hall. Lowery is a former member of the Lumbee Tribal Council. He’s also worked in former Gov. Pat McCrory’s administration and for the N.C. Department of Insurance.

NOTE: This transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.

What in your mind is driving the shift towards the Republican Party here in Robeson County, particularly among the Lumbee community?

"For a long period of time, the majority of people in Robeson County were registered Democrats. There was a large contingent of the Lumbee population — we had precincts that were 85-90% registered Democrat.

"I think there is a general belief that the Democrats have done two things: Number one, they have drifted a little further to the left than what most people are comfortable with. They're not talking about issues that they used to talk about, that people really, really cared about. And secondly, they're not showing back up in the community and not focusing on those issues. Democrats used to talk about sustainable jobs, community health care, and now they're not talking about those issues.

"Republicans have finally started to show up. We had Republicans since 2012, with Congressman Richard Hudson at that time, start showing up and come into Lumbee communities and stopping at Lumbee churches and actually having events in Lumbee areas. And now Republicans aren't seen as those big bad rich folks anymore."

Is there a reason it's more pronounced and more dramatic a shift here than other rural counties that are kind of trending the same direction?

"The Lumbee people especially are very independent minded. There was a time that the Democratic infrastructure in Robeson County was very, very strong. You literally had what we call haulers — people would come by and pick you up and take you to the polls and give you a list of people to vote for. That's the way things were done, but that infrastructure isn't here anymore. Lumbee people, especially now, they don't want that. They don't want people taking them to the polls. They don't want people to tell them who to vote for."

What's been the impact of American trade policies, such as NAFTA, on the economy here, and does that play into political leanings in this area as well?

"I remember growing up, there were a lot of factories here. We had Abbott Laboratories making medical supplies, hospital supplies. We had Converse making shoes. People would talk about the things that they made at work, and they’d be very proud of that. There were very good-paying jobs for folks who came straight out of high school and made really good money. Especially when Donald Trump came through and started talking about this American worker who's been left behind, and talking about how NAFTA was terrible, you started singing the song that people in Robeson County were talking about."

What does this corner of the state need to thrive economically going forward?

"Number one: high-speed internet access. Because if you want an Amazon to come sit at the intersection of (interstates) 74 and 95, Amazon uses a lot of data. If it’s a warehouse, you have to move a lot of data to figure out how they can get you your favorite product tomorrow. And I think that the future for this area here is warehousing and distribution. I-74, which runs through Robeson, Scotland, Columbus and Richmond counties, that really is the future lifeblood. That's why I think the Port of Wilmington is so important, and you've got Charlotte right down the road."

Jarrod Lowery, a North Carolina state representative from Pembroke, stands for a portrait in the townhall in Pembroke, North Carolina, on Dec. 12, 2023.
Cornell Watson
/
for WUNC
Jarrod Lowery, a North Carolina state representative from Pembroke, stands for a portrait in the townhall in Pembroke, North Carolina, on Dec. 12, 2023.

How much does a politician’s support for federal recognition for the Lumbee Tribe impact how well they do in this community?

"It is very, very important. And actually, that's been a part of the change. Before you would have Democrats come to Robeson County and say, ‘hey, we're supporting full federal recognition, we're totally on board.’ And Republicans never came. I mean, Jesse Helms himself literally killed Lumbee recognition, and there was that negative connotation towards Republicans that they don't care about this issue that's important to us. So now that Republicans show up, and they say, 'look, it's important to us, and we want to make it happen.’ That’s another reason Lumbee people have shifted.

"If you have somebody who shows up, and federal recognition is not their concern at all, then you're telling me I don't need to be treated equal, that I need to continue to be a second-class citizen in Indian country."

What changes for the Lumbee community once federal recognition happens, what benefits do you see coming here?

"When a tribe gets full federal recognition, they are given an amount of sovereignty, and they're given a government-to-government relationship with the federal government. The federal government sets appropriations, and they have set-asides just for American Indian tribes. You're talking about investments that can come into education and to health care and to public safety. But it also opens up a whole range of economic development tools that the tribe did not have before. So it's really an economic boost to the region. The federal government sets aside so much money every year to invest in in Indian Health Services, and we will be able to take some of those funds."

Given the casino legislation we saw this past session that would have allowed a Lumbee-operated casino somewhere in this corner of the state, do you get a sense of how that would work out, what the level of support is here for that?

"If there's a casino put in our territory, the people will still have to vote on it. And I think the way a lot of Lumbee people see it is ‘look, we just want the opportunity. You give us the opportunity, let the people decide if we want to do it or not.’ We've never had this level of support out of the General Assembly to say, ‘look, we know that the Lumbee people have been put in a bad spot by the federal government, the state can't fix it, but here's a way to help you pass that hurdle.’ I'm a big supporter of it because I want our people to have the same opportunity that other federally recognized tribes in the state have. And I think our people here would be generally supportive. You're talking about a lot of jobs in an area that needs a lot of jobs."

We're sitting just down the street from the campus of UNC-Pembroke, a historic institution that has served the American Indian population around here for many years. What's the role of the university in this area's success? And what do you see it needing over time to grow and continue to thrive?

"UNC-Pembroke helped create the middle class that we have in Robeson and surrounding counties today. At the beginning of its creation, it was where a person could go and become a teacher. And what that led to is a generation of teachers who had good stable jobs that paid well, and then their children went on to become engineers or doctors or lawyers. You created that middle class there.

"The NC Promise (tuition program) right now is huge, to be able to go to school for $500 a semester. I mean, where else can you do that?

"For Pembroke going forward, we need to continue to expand some of the programs. We have a beautiful new School of Business. Something I'm very proud of is that we are going to be launching the first school of optometry in North Carolina here in a couple of years. The closest optometry school is Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, or Memphis, Tennessee. We're going to have people in North Carolina from places like Fair Bluff or Rockingham or Clinton to be able to come to Robeson County, get that education, become an optometrist, and go right back to their community and not be saddled with an amount of debt."

An ariel view of the downtown area of Pembroke, North Carolina on Dec. 12, 2023.
Cornell Watson
/
for WUNC
An ariel view of the downtown area of Pembroke, North Carolina on Dec. 12, 2023.

Colin Campbell covers politics for WUNC as the station's capitol bureau chief.
More Stories