Where Have All the Tribes Gone?

In the wake of Black Lives Matter and other equal rights movements, the lives of Indigenous Persons and  Native American Lives Matter too. The Federal Government is stripping tribes of their Federal recognition, leaving tribes in a long line of waiting to be restored as a federally recognized group of people. Is your tribe still a tribe?

I was talking to a friend of mine a while back about her tribe and the recognition of other indigenous people. Her tribe had recently lost their federal recognition. I thought, how does that happen? She told me that it is happening to many tribes and people who consider themselves as Native American or Indigenous American.

I was curious to know more, so I did some research and discovered a few things I thought were worth noting. As of 2015, the federal government recognizes 566 to be Indian Entities, which means that they are able to receive services from the United States Bureau of Indian Affairs (Division of Tribal Government Services). That number, however, does not include all tribes that are indigenous to the United States.

Like everything here in America, gaining membership as a federally recognized tribe requires a process. Historically a tribe is conferred status through treaties and Acts of Congress ultimately being approved by the United States Court. But just as there is a decision to approve federal recognition there is also a decision to terminate a tribe, that only Congress can restore.

Why would a tribe be terminated? This is the question I asked my friend. Her tribe was terminated and she was conflicted on how to check census boxes. Based on her brief explanation, it can come down to numbers. Are there enough natives in your tribe in a certain location to be supported in any fashion by the federal government. The question she asked herself:

"Aren't I still Native?"

It turns out that there are seven criteria to be considered for federal designation as an Indian tribe. The Office office of Federal Acknowledgement (OFA) requires the following:

  • criterion 83.7(a) requires that external observers have identified the petitioner as an American Indian entity on a substantially continuous basis since 1900.
  • Criterion 83.7(b) requires that a predominant portion of the petitioning group has comprised a distinct community since historical times.
  • Criterion 83.7(c) requires that the petitioning group has maintained political influence over its members as an autonomous entity since historical times.
  • Criterion 83.7(d) requires that the petitioner provide a copy of its governing document.
  • Criterion 83.7(e) requires that a petitioner's members descend from a historical Indian tribe.
  • Criterion 83.7(f) requires that the petitioner's membership be composed principally of persons who are not members of another Federally recognized Indian tribe.
  • Criterion 83.7(g) requires that the petitioner not be subject to legislation forbidding the Federal relationship(https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/CFR-2001-title25-vol1/content-detail.html).

There are over 220 non-recognized tribes in the U.S. and at least eight of those tribes are in Washington state, to include: the Chinook, Cowlitz, Delawares, Duwamish, Snohomish, Snoqualmie, Snoqualmoo and Steilacoom (https://www.manataka.org/page240.html).

To answer the question of whether or not your unrecognized tribe is Native, the answer is yes. The culture and traditions you inherit from your family are all your own, but the Federal government is not recognizing you as an "entity." Being recognized as an entity is important to many tribes, because it is a documented declaration that the Federal Government has not ignored their needs and interests, but to be stripped of recognition means the government does not see them as whole representation of people, and to never be recognized forces the question of does the government see them at all?

This left me to wonder why there is not more attention directed to this issue, and how this can apply to other aspects of American life.   Can the Federal Government at any time decide that an entire population of people are not who they believe themselves to be based on criterion created by a non-member of that group?  These are things to consider as we have seen not all Tribes are actually tribes in the eyes of the Federal Government. 

Aren't all Americans worthy of recognition?

"All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others"--George Orwell, Animal Farm


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