‘We are a swing tribe’: Lumbee wield political clout in North Carolina

As they push for tribal status, the Lumbee fight COVID-19 and voter apathy.

PEMBROKE, N.C. -- As Republicans gather in Charlotte to formally nominate President Donald Trump for a second term, their hopes of winning North Carolina could hinge on a poor, rural county 100 miles away and one of the nation's largest Native American tribes that lives there.

Robeson County, home to the Lumbee, is one of the most diverse rural counties in the U.S. A majority of voters are minorities. Four years ago, after decades of reliably backing Democrats, they swung for Trump.

"In 2016, people were focusing on the governance of this country and what was happening on a policy side. I think it's a little different now," said Joshua Malcolm, chief justice of the Lumbee Tribal Supreme Court and a former chairman of the North Carolina board of elections.

"This is about personalities," he said of the 2020 race. "People are fed up and they want a government that works."

With the county a COVID-19 hot spot and facing a worsening economic crisis, the Lumbee, the largest tribe east of the Mississippi and ninth-largest nationally, are being tested like never before and hoping their political clout can deliver much-needed financial help.

"The deaths are high as well," Maynor said. "The sad part, and why this is so important, is that we need to test more and continue to test because there's lots of people walking around who have it, who are asymptomatic."

When ABC News Live visited one of the testing sites late last month, test kits purchased by the Lumbee were in short supply along with federal funding, which is contingent on federal recognition the tribe does not have.

"What people don't understand is that with federal recognition comes health care, comes free education -- and those are the things that we are in need of right now," said Lumbee health care worker Grace Oxendine, one of a dozen volunteers conducting the testing.

While the Lumbee have lived along the Lumber River in southeast Carolina for centuries, the government has rejected their claims of tribal identity and sovereignty. A unique history of intermarriage with freed slaves and members of other tribes has led to a complicated ancestral picture -- difficult to document, difficult to prove to the government that it meets tribal recognition standards.

North Carolina has fully recognized the Lumbee as one of eight state tribes since 1885, but without federal recognition the tribe lacks the same legal rights and benefits awarded to others. When Congress passed $8 billion for tribal COVID-19 relief in the spring, the Lumbee didn't get one cent.

"I can only speak for the Lumbee, but right now we're struggling," said tribal chairman Harvey Godwin, Jr., when asked whether the Trump administration has delivered for the tribe.

With help from global charities, including actor Sean Penn's CORE and celebrity chef Jose Andres' World Central Kitchen, the tribe is testing, feeding and educating as many of its 55,000 members as it can.

Every day for nearly two weeks this summer, tribal members are handing out fresh produce, PPE and teaching supplies at pop-up aid centers. The median household income in Robeson County is just $33,000, according to the Census Bureau, and nearly half of all homes don't have high-speed internet.

Proudly self-reliant, the Lumbee made clear they don't want a handout. Many are fiercely patriotic, and dozens have served in the military. The tribe never took up arms against the U.S. government.

"This is our country too, and we're going to defend it because it's our country. It's our land," said Godwin.

The Lumbee community has found limited success in Washington. FEMA recently completed repairs on a dam along the tribe's sacred lake that was breached during Hurricane Matthew in October 2016, resulting in catastrophic flooding that devastated families. But tribal leaders are still negotiating the bill.

"We felt very good about the assistance we got with this project," said tribal administrator Freda Porter. "We just need to get it closed out and paid for."

Godwin credited the state's congressional delegation, a mix of Republican and Democratic leaders, with seeing the project through -- a sign, he said, the Lumbee are emerging as a political force that crosses party lines.

"People are moving now more to 'unaffiliated,'" Chief Justice Malcolm said of Lumbee voters. "People are dissatisfied on both sides."

Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans in Robeson County by about 4 to 1, according to state voter registration records. Unaffiliated voters make up nearly a third of those registered in the county.

"We are a swing tribe," said Godwin, "which I think is good for all the Indian Country for us to be this way."

In 2016, Trump clinched North Carolina's 15 electoral votes with a 173,000 vote margin over Democrat Hillary Clinton. The 2020 race is shaping up to be even closer, with Trump virtually tied with former Vice President Joe Biden in the latest state polling averages compiled by FiveThirtyEight.

To have influence in November, the Lumbee need to turn out. Historically, few vote by mail. By one estimate, just 20% of eligible Lumbee voters are registered.

"We're going to work our hardest to make sure everybody knows what's going on," said Donna Semans, a nonpartisan grassroots organizer with Four Directions, a Native American voting rights group. "On reservations, the way things work is word of mouth. You want people to know stuff? You have to be on the ground to let people know things because they're very busy."

The pandemic makes that person-to-person work of getting Lumbee to the polls even harder.

"COVID is really muddying the waters, but we're resilient people. We're gonna push through and make sure our voice is being heard," said Alexis Raena Jones, a Lumbee recording artist and former contestant on "American Idol" now working to boost voter registration.

"Living in the white man's world, as Indigenous people, it's hard to really get our story out there because people tend to forget who we are as a people and who we are as a race," Jones said.

At county election headquarters, officials are scrambling too.

"By the time late summer rolls around, I'm sure we'll be busier than a one-legged man in a butt-kicking contest," said county elections chief Tina Bledsoe, who has overseen voting in Robeson County for more than 25 years.

Her team is still sourcing PPE for poll workers and new voting booths to keep people more than 6 feet apart.

"It's crucial," Bledsoe added. "As you know, we'll be in the spotlight."

The Lumbee appear to be in the center of that spotlight, possibly determining whether North Carolina goes red or blue. Many Lumbee remain loyal to Trump.

"Lumbees gravitate toward somebody who speaks a little different," said tribal councilman Jarrod Lowery, a Republican, who said Trump has a good shot here in November. "He's not a politician, and you get the understanding that if he says something, he kind of means it, and he's very different."

Lowery dismissed Trump's divisive and racist rhetoric promoting "white power" and attacking Sen. Elizabeth Warren as "Pocahontas."

"Not that we're sitting around calling people 'Pocahontas,' but, you know, you laugh at what he says and we kind of feel like he says things offhand, you know, to be funny," Lowery added.

Jones disagreed: "I cannot speak for all my Lumbee people, but to hear the things that [Trump] has said and his viewpoints on Indigenous people, on women, on the LGBTQ community, it's kind of hard to really agree with some of his views."

While less than enthusiastic about Joe Biden, Jones said she plans to vote for him.

"When we're living in the greatest country in the world, and we have the caliber of presidential candidates that we have now? It's frustrating to say the least," she said.

That frustration has some analysts closely watching the Lumbee vote as a potential 2020 wildcard.

"Everything is on the line," said Godwin. "How we're gonna go forward as a people. How we're going to go forward with social injustice, with the pandemic, with health, with the economy -- rebuilding it, with small business, everything. Everything has been affected by what we're going through now, and everything's on the line."

ABC News' Jackie Yoo and Jon Schlosberg contributed to this report.