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Water in the Lumbee World: Indigenous Rights, Environmental Justice, and the Reshaping of Home

March 12, 2020 | Ryan Emanuel

The Lumbee River is a blackwater stream that flows through North Carolina’s coastal plain. It is a centerpiece of culture and history for the Lumbee Tribe. Photo by Ryan Emanuel.
The Lumbee River, a blackwater stream that flows through North Carolina’s coastal plain, is a centerpiece of culture and history for the Lumbee Tribe (photo: Ryan Emanuel)

In North Carolina, many Native American cultures are tightly bound to specific blackwater streams and swamps. Many tribes in the state lack federal recognition and therefore lack legal protections afforded to federally-recognized tribes. The Lumbee Tribe is the largest of these, with 60,000 enrolled citizens. Recent efforts to develop industrial agriculture facilities, fossil fuel pipelines, and other extractive infrastructure expose the vulnerability of the Lumbee and neighboring tribes to environmental and cultural degradation. This dialogue examines environmental and cultural implications of these activities from Emanuel’s dual perspective as a Lumbee person and a water scientist. Emanuel places current activities in the context of centuries-long efforts by external (and sometimes internal) actors to reshape traditional Lumbee territory in ways that facilitate extractive and polluting practices. Emanuel concludes with a discussion of efforts to amplify Indigenous voices from North Carolina in public discourse on social justice, human rights, and the environment.

Ryan Emanuel is an associate professor and University Faculty Scholar at North Carolina State University. He is a hydrologist who studies water and ecological processes in natural and human-altered environments. An enrolled member of the Lumbee Tribe, Emanuel works to broaden participation of Native Americans in higher education and to elevate Indigenous perspectives in academic research and public policy. His recent scholarship focuses on environmental history and environmental justice in North Carolina’s Indigenous communities. Emanuel holds a PhD and MS in environmental sciences from the University of Virginia and a BS in geology from Duke University.