Boise State Provides Inspiration a Long Way from Its Campus
February began with a murder trial grabbing the headlines of the local paper in Robeson County, N.C., which isn't unusual in a place where the court system is clogged to the point that the homicide cases from 2006 are just now going before a jury.
This time, a 19-year-old was convicted of shooting a beloved teacher and tennis coach three times, leaving him slumped over the steering wheel of his pickup truck before taking his gold watch. The national media was there to cover a trial 18 years ago after two men killed Michael Jordan's father -- who had pulled off I-95 to take a nap -- and dumped his body in a river.
In between, there have been hundreds of other murders, thousands of armed robberies and assaults and too many other crimes to count. There's no mistaking Robeson County for Mayberry.
"It's sad because I see a lot of people that want to change," said Tess Hollis, a reporter who covers crime for The Robesonian, the local daily.
She found some time to chat between covering the trial and following up on a case where a man reported a group storming into his home and pistol whipping him across the face before taking $100 and a cell phone, and another where a woman was stabbed walking into a convenience store. But she had to talk while driving to her next assignment. The job keeps her too busy.
"They want to change," she said, "but it just overlaps every generation."
Milwaukee Bucks assistant coach Kelvin Sampson is a Robeson County native. He often tells the story of working in a tobacco warehouse as a teenager and watching his co-workers pour Aqua Velva into bottles of Coke because they couldn't afford real booze.
In a place where more than 30 percent of the people live below the poverty line and children are twice as likely to die before they turn 18 than the rest of North Carolina, people will look anywhere for a reason to hope.
For a large chunk of the Robeson County population, that place is 2,490 miles northwest.
Even though he's a smart kid, a finance major who was on the WAC's All-Academic team as a sophomore, when you talk to Aaron Tevis (right) you get the impression he doesn't really get it.
Yes, he's a football player at Boise State. Yes, his mother was originally from Robeson County and most of her family still lives there. He visited almost every summer as a kid and still talks to cousins there, but Tevis grew up in Tucson, Ariz. He lived in a middle-class home and his mom, Dr. Sandy Lucas, was a professor at the University of Arizona.
He can see the connection for what it is on the surface and the rising senior linebacker is honored when he looks into the stands and sees giant banners bearing his name. But his voice reveals a hint of bemusement when he talks about it.
"The support I get from them is really surprising," Tevis said. "It's nice to know there are people out there that support not only me, but the tribe and Boise State."
In every other town across the United States, quarterback Kellen Moore is the Bronco people buzz about, but in Robeson County it's Tevis -- a good, if not great player -- who is a folk hero of sorts. He may not fully understand it, but his mother does.
"I try to teach my boys that life is larger than yourself," Lucas said. "But Aaron is very humble. He doesn't necessarily like attention on himself."
Robeson County is home of the Lumbee Indians, a tribe that has battled for full federal recognition for more than a century. They've lived largely in squalor after being turned down time and time again. Tevis and his brother Jared, a walk-on safety at Arizona, are registered members of the tribe. Their mother is a full-blooded Lumbee.
She talks to family and friends back home and they tell her about watching Aaron and the Broncos on TV. The governing body of college football may keep Boise State on the outside, away from the money that would put it on level ground with other programs, but the Broncos go out and beat the big boys anyway. And a Lumbee is helping them do it.
"It was kind of a natural fit for my son to be with a team that through hard work has really excelled," Lucas said. "Boise State has had to fight their way through the football national arena because some people don't give them the recognition they deserve. I think Aaron is with a football team that has had to prove itself and he comes from a tribe that has had to prove itself."
A bill that would give the tribe full benefits from the Bureau of Indian Affairs was approved by the House last year, but died in the Senate. This year it's up for debate in Congress once again.
"It is time for discrimination to end and recognition to begin," said U.S. Representative Mike McIntrye (D-N.C.), who introduced the Lumbee bill. "The historical record is persuasive and compelling that for the last 200 years the Lumbee have functioned as an Indian tribe and have been recognized as such by state and local authorities. It is time they achieve federal recognition."
Today there are approximately 55,000 Lumbee in the United States, with nearly 47,000 of those in Robeson County.
Many historians believe -- and the tribe's own oral history supports the theory -- that the Lumbee are descendents of the Lost Colony of Roanoke. It's thought that the English settlers who disappeared around 1600 moved inland and assimilated with Native Americans in present-day Robeson County, where, in 1885, the tribe was first recognized by the State of North Carolina as the Croatan Indians.
When other Eastern tribes were forced to relocate in the 19th century, the Lumbee were able to hide out in the swampland along the South Carolina border and remain in their traditional home.
In 1952, Robeson County commissioners conducted a tribal referendum and voted to change the name to the "Lumbee Indians of North Carolina." Four years later the federal government passed The Lumbee Act, which condoned the group calling themselves an Indian tribe.
But that small bit of recognition came with a catch. Despite decades of the same mistreatment other Native Americans in the U.S. suffered, the Lumbee would not be eligible for financial benefits and other services afforded recognized Indian tribes.
"Growing up in the south and being Native American was kind of a double whammy as far as discrimination," Lucas said.
In 1987, the Lumbee began petitioning Congress for full federal recognition, which would have provided significant financial aid to the poorest county in North Carolina. Further attempts failed in 1988, 1989, 1991, 1993, 2004, 2006, 2007, 2009 and 2010, with the Eastern Band of the Cherokee, North Carolina's second- largest tribe, and the Tuscora Nation of North Carolina often opposing the bills.
The Cherokee have used the Lumbee's unique history against them, essentially saying they were too white to truly be considered Indians and hadn't earned their benefits on the Trail of Tears.
But many Lumbee supporters say the Cherokee just don't want to share federal dollars and potential revenue from casinos with the Lumbee.
"It's got a lot to do with politics and a lot to do with money," said James Locklear, who publishes the Lumbee magazine Native Visions. "Other tribes are heavily dependent on the federal government. To me it's wrong. I think Indians should band together. Other tribes should understand the hardships better than anyone."
Tevis says he's proud of his Lumbee heritage, but admits that wasn't always the case. He kept the fact he was Lumbee a secret from friends at school, saying he didn't want to seem different from the other kids. Lucas said she and Aaron's father, who is of Czech decent, divorced in part because he didn't respect Native American culture.
But as he grew up, Tevis became more comfortable in his own skin. As a teenager, he matured into a handsome star athlete -- an all-state football player and MVP of the basketball team at Canyon Del Oro High School -- and honor roll student. The popular and more confident Tevis began to embrace his roots. He and his brother would travel to Robeson County with their mother to spend time with cousins and attend the annual pow-wow.
"I used to go for the homecoming every summer," Tevis said. "I have a lot of family there and it's a lot of fun. We're a big sports family so we play basketball and stuff and have a lot of fun every time I go back."
But Tevis's memories of Robeson County came from times of celebration. The grim realities that many other Lumbee faced had little to do with his day-to-day life.
A study in the mid 1980s concluded the murder rate among the Lumbee was four times the national average and by 2006 it was more than five times the average for all Americans. College coaches often decline to recruit Lumbee athletes, convinced they won't make it away from the tribe's traditional homeland. Many Lumbee students have no hope of an education past high school.
"Most of the people I speak to, the district attorney and people in law enforcement, have linked the poverty rate to the crime rate," Hollis said. "Everyday the crime report is incredibly lengthy. I came from Auburn, Ala., where a murder was a big deal, but it seems to happen every week here."
Most Lumbee think that would begin to change if the government would just give them they recognition they know they deserve.
"It would be better if we had the full recognition and benefits," Locklear said. "Some of the things we deal with because of kids not being able to afford college, that would be wiped clean. One of the bigger things would be to get better health care, because a lot of people here don't have health insurance."
Robeson County's reaction to Tevis and the Broncos isn't surprising when you consider that the Lumbee have always rallied around their success stories.
They were the first tribe to open their own college, now known as the University of North Carolina at Pembroke. Actress Heather Locklear is probably the most famous person of Lumbee descent. Sampson was at one time on top of his game as the coach at Oklahoma and Indiana before NCAA violations derailed his career. Offensive lineman Sean Locklear played in a Super Bowl with the Seahawks and LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis is another proud Lumbee. Outside of sports and entertainment there are dozens of doctors, lawyers and CEOs.
"We have people doing great things on a national level," Lucas said. "But nothing was given to us."
With Tevis the Lumbee have another success story and one that can shine a light on the issues they all face. Lumbees can't help but look at their fight and see the parallels. They hope others will too.
"It's definitely something that we have in common," James Locklear said. "They hit the big time, but no matter what kind of success they have there is a group of people trying to keep them down. From a tribal standpoint we've been fighting the battle for centuries and it's a tough situation. I've actually been a Boise State fan since about 2003, but now you have about 55,000 extra people rooting for them. You got people here that probably never heard of Boise that are now Boise State fans. They've got a big fan base here."
Tevis' 80-year-old grandmother sits in her nursing home in Pembroke, N.C., and talks about the Broncos with other residents. Signs at Boise State games have slogans such as "Bronco Recognition Now; Lumbee Recognition Now." Tribal chairman Purnell Swett has publically applauded Boise State fans that have helped get the message out about his people.
"We're aware of their efforts," Swett told the Idaho Statesman. "There's a couple of Lumbee out there helping you push for the recognition that you want."
At this point, both Boise State's and the Lumbee's quests remain unfulfilled. The fall of 2010 seemed promising, but the year ended with the Broncos' best shot of a national title thwarted after a loss at Nevada.
The Lumbee had hoped it was finally the year their bid for full federal recognition would be realized, but some tribal leaders' 11th-hour talks with gaming lobbyists may have killed the bill.
Crime and poverty are still prevalent in Robeson County and, despite some hope during conference realignment, the Broncos are still stuck in a league that doesn't have an automatic bid to a BCS bowl.
The Lumbee hero remains reluctant or perhaps unaware of what he means to the downtrodden tribe.
"I don't think too much about all the other stuff," he said. "We just try to win every game and let the rest take care of itself."
For both the Lumbee and the Broncos, finally achieving their goals could mean millions of dollars, but the money would just be a bonus next to the respect they've longed for.
"More than in a monetary sense it would mean a lot to our people just to be recognized as real Indians," James Locklear said. "I don't know what else the tribe has to do to prove who we are."