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Laura Dial left Robeson County decades ago in search of new job opportunities.

But Dial, 72, travels nearly 250 miles each year to attend Lumbee Homecoming, a celebration of family, food and American Indian traditions that draws thousands of people to Southeastern North Carolina.

“This is always home,” said Dial, who now lives in Anderson, South Carolina.

Some say this year’s event, which wrapped up Saturday with a parade, powwow and vendors who sold grape ice cream, collard sandwiches and handmade jewelry, was extra special.

The festivities were canceled last year because of the coronavirus pandemic. Then, late last year, the U.S. Senate did not grant the Lumbee Tribe federal recognition, despite support from then-President Donald Trump and President-elect Joe Biden.

It was a blow to the Lumbees, the largest tribe east of the Mississippi River, with about 55,000 members, most in Robeson, Hoke, Cumberland and Scotland counties. Without the designation, the tribe is denied millions of dollars in federal money that could help improve people’s lives.

Robeson ranks among the poorest, most violent and least healthy of North Carolina’s 100 counties. Some say racial tensions are evident, as Robeson County is one of the most diverse counties in the state.

U.S. Rep. Dan Bishop, a Republican who represents the state’s Ninth District, told the crowd Saturday that new bills have been filed in the House and Senate, continuing the effort that began more than a century ago.

“I’m not going to rest until that justice is corrected and the Lumbee receives full federal recognition,” Bishop said. “I’ve come to see what the Lumbee people are all about and the love that you guys absolutely 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 presented last year at the Cape Fear Regional Theatre. It will run again this fall at the Givens Performing Arts Center at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke.

Homecoming is about educating young people about the complex history of the Lumbees, and to remind them about 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 within them the ancestral spirit,” said Lowery, who can trace her ancestry to the 1600s.

According to tribal history, there is archaeological evidence of American Indians in the area dating back roughly 14,000 years. The Lumber River and the swampy land around it reportedly provided isolation from disease and European settlers.

Now, about 42% of Robeson County’s population of 130,000 people are American Indian.

Lumbee history permeates just about every aspect of life here, including the university. UNCP was originally the Croatan Normal School, which was established in 1887 to train American Indian teachers. Lawmakers in Raleigh changed the name in 1913 to the Cherokee Indian Normal School of Robeson County.

Students of other ethnicities were allowed to enroll starting in the 1950s, and the school later became part of the UNC system.

The Lumbee tribe, with its headquarters in Pembroke, offers job services and a Boys & Girls Club. Currently, the tribe is building a village complex to house homeless veterans.

Tribal Chairman Harvey Godwin Jr., said the tribe helps 20,000 veterans a year with housing.

“This village will be all vets, in recognition of them,” he said.

‘POSITIVE IN THE COMMUNITY’

While homecoming is a festive time for family cookouts and reunions with childhood friends, it can also provide a glimpse into the community’s struggles.

Dial said drugs and crime have become bigger problems since she left the region, and it’s tough for her to see when she returns to visit.

Brandy Trent, 29, lives in Lumberton and sold jewelry and snacks during the homecoming parade Saturday morning. She said the event was a welcome change.

“You don’t see that being done,” Trent said. “You see positive in the community.”

Members of Shatter the Silence, a group that advocates 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 2017 in a case that remains unsolved, said the goal is to raise awareness about crime.

“Eventually,” she said, “enough people are going to see us wanting justice.”

She hopes federal officials will step in to help with unsolved cases.

In spite of challenges, homecoming offered a chance for the Lumbee people to dance, to laugh, to eat and to be together.

“I’m glad to be home,” said Dial’s daughter, Selena Dial Hamby. “It just didn’t feel right last year not being at homecoming.”