By Margaret Moffett
Photos by Zan Maddox
Like 18 local tribal leaders before him, Lumbee Nation Chairman Harvey Godwin Jr. (pictured above) has worn out a path between Robeson County and Washington, D.C.
When Godwin is there, which is often, he’s usually on Capitol Hill, testifying before House and Senate committees, lobbying legislators in their offices, advocating — no, pleading — for one small but significant act: Federal recognition for the Lumbees, the largest Native American tribe east of the Mississippi River with 65,000 ethnic Lumbees.
With a stroke of a pen, millions of federal dollars could flow into southeastern North Carolina — particularly Robeson, Hoke, Scotland and Cumberland counties — for education and health care. More important, Godwin says, it would bring “pride for our people in not being considered ‘less than.’”
“We should be entitled to sit at the same table, not just be half-recognized.”
Unlike the other 18 leaders, he might just pull it off. “It’s going to happen before the 2020 election,” says Godwin, 65, owner of a Lumberton employment agency who is midway through a second, and final, three-year term as tribal chairman.
How can he be so sure? After all, the Lumbees have been seeking federal recognition since 1888. (North Carolina recognized the tribe three years earlier.)
There’s a bill winding its way through Congress, sponsored by U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield, a Wilson Democrat, with a companion bill from Republican Sen. Richard Burr. But there have been many bills over the years, and even more attempts that never made it that far. This time, Godwin says, the Lumbees are leveraging their power as one of the state’s largest voting blocs, noting an official membership roll of 35,000, plus another 30,000 people who were members at some point in their lives but are no longer official. Other backers include U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis and U.S. Rep. Dan Bishop, who represents Robeson County. Both are Republicans.
“We can swing an election either way, and North Carolina is a swing state,” says the soft-spoken, lifelong Robeson County resident, his salt-and-pepper hair pulled into a tight ponytail. “We can swing a congressional election in our own district. We can swing a gubernatorial election. A presidential election.”
If the Lumbee Recognition Act (H.R. 1964) does pass this year, observers say it will be because Godwin has built a broader coalition than previous tribal chiefs. A registered Democrat, he has formed a political and personal bond with influential leaders. In an op-ed for The Charlotte Observer last year, Sen. Burr accused the North Carolina-based Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, which vehemently opposes Lumbee recognition, of “bullying” the Lumbees and other North Carolina tribes.
That’s the kind of loyalty Godwin inspires, says Murchson “Bo” Biggs of Lumberton, a Republican active in state politics and a fellow Rotary Club member. “His popularity and his ability to increase support from all political parties and all races has furthered the Lumbee national recognition cause,” says Biggs, secretary-treasurer of his family’s real estate company, K.M. Biggs.
Donnie Douglas, editor of The Robesonian newspaper in Lumberton and a longtime observer of Lumbee politics, says Godwin doesn’t fit the mold of previous chairmen. “He is a genuine alternative to the good ol’ boy tribal network,” Douglas says. “He’s thoughtful and, in some ways, single-minded [about recognition].”
Douglas isn’t sure if the Lumbees will win recognition by the Nov. 3 election. “But,” he says, “I do know that Harvey believes it.”
The Lumbee Nation tribal compound sits about two miles from downtown Pembroke, framed by N.C. 711 to the south, Watering Hole Swamp to the north and Chicken Road to the east. It includes a Boys & Girls Club, one of seven operated by the Nation; dozens of rental homes for tribe members; and the 11-year-old Lumbee Nation headquarters, a building Godwin likens to the Capitol in Washington, D.C. The governmental center is shaped like a turtle, a sacred animal in Native American culture. From the highway, it looks like a small elementary school, its shell-shaped rotunda easily mistaken for a combo gymnasium/auditorium.
About 130 full-time, part-time and seasonal tribal employees work in the $4 million building, offering constituent services like housing repair, energy assistance and student-housing vouchers. More people work off-campus at the veterans’ services office, community centers for the elderly, and the Boys & Girls Clubs.
Until 2015, Godwin had never been active in tribal politics, never served on the 21-member council, never dreamed he’d oversee a government with $62 million in assets, mostly land and buildings.
Instead, his focus was on the private sector. In 1999, he founded Two Hawk Employment Services, which places temps in manufacturing plants, warehouses, distribution centers and offices. Two Hawk Workforce Services, a subsidiary, contracts with state and local governments to provide federally mandated job training and career-counseling programs. The company operates 16 offices across North Carolina.
It was a big deal 21 years ago when Godwin opened the main office in downtown Lumberton, Biggs says. Revitalization efforts were just getting started, and Two Hawk helped spur economic development in the central district, he says.
The business quickly became successful. With his son, Cody Eagle Horse Godwin, serving as chief financial officer from the start, Godwin has had enough time to serve on community boards and enough money to become a generous philanthropist. He might have been content to continue on that path of expanding Two Hawk, serving on local boards and spending time with his family.
But something happened in 2015. Godwin had always been a person of faith — Lumbees are overwhelmingly Christian. On this particular day, however, he felt a more urgent calling.
“I woke up one day, and I literally felt God smile on me,” he says. “I could feel it. And when that happened, I kind of just … went toward it. Toward the light.” That light led him to run for tribal chairman that year against the incumbent and three others. He won 42% of the vote. “That was a big victory that surprised everybody. It didn’t surprise us,” he says, letting a slight smile spread across his usually serious face.
In 2018, he ran again against a Robeson County commissioner, Randy Cummings, and won with 69%, winning every voting district in every precinct.
In both elections, Godwin beat candidates with more government experience and wider name recognition because tribe members trust him to handle their money, says Douglas.
That’s because Lumbee Nation is really a government in name only. “It’s a business,” according to Douglas. “And Harvey is a businessman — a successful businessman. And he’s a bright guy.”
There’s significant money on the line. Five years before Godwin became chief, the tribe received certification from the U.S. Small Business Administration to pursue federal contracts, what’s known as 8(a) certification. The nonprofit Lumbee Nation created a for-profit entity, Lumbee Tribe Enterprises, which manages $400 million in government and private-sector contracts. That includes a $17 million deal last year to train members of the U.S. Marine Corps’ Ground-Based Air Defense unit on how to use equipment.[media-credit name=”BNC” align=”alignright” width=”400″][/media-credit]
Profits pour into the nonprofit side of the business, paying for programs for the poor, the elderly and others. Godwin anticipates revenue of $33 million this year.
“We don’t waste federal dollars. We don’t corrupt federal dollars. We show true return on investment on American taxpayer dollars,” he says. “We’ve proven that time and time again, and that’s why we’re being successful in our for-profit company, because we know how to run a business.”
Godwin grew up about two miles from the tribal headquarters, straight across Moss Neck Swamp. Both sets of grandparents farmed, determined to send their large progeny to Pembroke State University, now UNC Pembroke. Most of their college-educated children, including Godwin’s mother, taught in Robeson County’s segregated schools.
Like many Lumbees of that era, Godwin was poor, his school-teacher mother and World War II veteran and auto-body repairman father notwithstanding. As the oldest of four children, he remembers running out of food, counting the days until his mother’s next paycheck and watching someone remove the license tag from the family car because they couldn’t afford insurance.
The pressure of poverty toughened him, he says. “You don’t yield to it, you don’t bend to it and you don’t lay down to it,” he says. “You get up.”
Until 1970, there were separate school systems in Robeson County for white, black and Lumbee students. Two years into integration, Godwin mounted his first campaign: student body president of Pembroke High School. He won. Godwin has never lost an election.
After high school, he went to Pembroke State and started a 21-year career in the grocery industry. A Piggly Wiggly store manager at 23, he later became a zone manager for Hills Foods, a small family-owned supermarket chain based in Whiteville. In between, he graduated from college with a degree in political science and government, got married, and raised two boys.
For six seasons in the 1980s, he starred as Lumbee hero Henry Berry Lowrie in “Strike at the Wind,” an outdoor drama in Pembroke that reopened last year after a decade-long absence. Set in the 1860s, it chronicles Lowrie’s leadership in an 8-year-long civil rights uprising and battle for tribal independence.
While participating in the play, Godwin met Pembroke attorney Julian Pierce. A graduate of UNC Pembroke with law degrees from N.C. Central and Georgetown universities, the Lumbee left a promising career with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission to return home and help the tribe. For 10 years, he ran Lumbee River Legal Services, which served low-income community members. Pierce also petitioned the government, unsuccessfully, for full federal recognition.
In 1988, he ran for Robeson County Superior Court, hoping to become the state’s first Native American judge. He picked Godwin — then 34, popular, connected and fiercely charismatic — to be his campaign manager in the race against Joe Freeman Britt, the local district attorney. Working side-by-side with Pierce transformed how Godwin viewed the tribe, the world and himself.
“He was a mentor in the way he taught me,” Godwin says, his usually soft-spoken voice growing more so. “Collaborating. Working with everybody — all different races, all different backgrounds. Figuring out a plan for the greater good, for people’s humanity, to improve their quality of life.”
Thirty days before Election Day, someone knocked on Pierce’s front door in the middle of the night. When he answered, he was shot multiple times, including at point-blank range in the head. He was 42.
Godwin was a pallbearer at his funeral. “It was devastating,” he says. “It took me a long time to deal with that.”
In 2013, Godwin helped created the Julian T. Pierce Memorial Scholarship Fund, which has awarded more than $110,000 to promising students at Robeson Community College, UNC Pembroke and N.C. Central University School of Law. But Godwin also honors his friend’s memory by advocating for the poor, pushing for federal recognition and “doing the right thing.”
“The Lumbee people want to be proud of their government, whether they’re involved in it or not. They want their administration to do what’s right by everybody.”
Godwin faced two enemies in his first term as chief: Hurricanes Matthew and Florence. The storms, in 2016 and 2018, respectively, caused epic flooding across southeastern North Carolina and hit Robeson County and Lumbee communities hard. Not even the “turtle building,” as Godwin calls the Lumbee Nation headquarters, was spared. Burr and other legislators worked to secure millions to clean up and rebuild, as did Gov. Roy Cooper. Godwin’s younger son, Quinn West Godwin, is an aide to the Democratic governor.
“Great bipartisan support helped the Lumbee people through that time,” Harvey Godwin says, “and it’s still helping us to this day.”
However, had the tribe been federally recognized, it would have received an extra $750,000 per storm, something available to all local government entities. Because North Carolina was declared a disaster area, the Cherokees in the western region qualified, and “they didn’t get enough wind to get a kite up into the air,” Godwin says.
The Cherokees are the main obstacle standing between the Lumbees and federal recognition. On Dec. 4, Principal Chief Richard Sneed testified before Congress, arguing that the Lumbees have “falsely claimed to be a Cherokee tribe” and “continue to appropriate our Cherokee identity.”
“They have cloaked themselves in the identities of many other tribes in trying to achieve acknowledgment as a tribe from the federal government,” Sneed said, adding that “we do not believe that most Lumbees today can demonstrate any Native ancestry at all.”
Part of the tension lies in the Lumbees’ search for their place in Native American history. At different points in the last 100 years, members have linked themselves with the Croatan, Cherokee, Siouan and Cheraw tribes. Today, the tribe’s website says the tribe is “the amalgamation of various Siouan-, Algonquian- and Iroquoian-speaking tribes” and that the area around the Lumber River was settled by Cheraw Indians.
Then there’s the money. In a 2018 Cherokee One Feather newspaper story, Sneed said recognizing the much larger Lumbee nation “has some staggering implications” for his tribe by boosting competition for federal funding. A 2009 Congressional Budget Office study estimated extending federal benefits to the Lumbees could cost nearly $200 million annually.
Because it’s federally recognized, the 14,000-member Eastern Cherokee band is part of a $33.7 billion Indian gaming industry in the U.S. Each tribe member receives about $12,000 a year tied to profits from casinos in Cherokee and Murphy in western North Carolina. A southeastern North Carolina competitor, also with federal credentials, could strip tourism revenue now claimed by the Cherokees.
The Lumbee constitution, adopted in 2000, requires a referendum on gaming, and Godwin isn’t clear whether members would pass it. A gambling operation can change an area “for good and bad,” he says.
“That would be a lot of work. That’d be a lot of preparation. And even with full federal recognition, we’re talking about years,” says Godwin, who will step down in 2022. Under the nation’s constitution, a chair may only serve two straight terms.
“We don’t want to get to the point a generation from now or two generations from now where our people are just sitting waiting on a check every month.”
Godwin believes the tribe’s future lies not in gaming — and not even in federal recognition. The real, sustainable growth involves Lumbee Tribe Enterprises and the federal contracts it receives.
“This money will lift up our people much more than any dollars from federal recognition will ever do,” he says. “We don’t have to be dependent or beholden to the government, because we’ve created this on our own hard work.
“This is our future, and this is just starting.”