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A Seven-Point Plan to Fix the Farce That Is Federal Recognition

A month or so ago my inbox was flooded with emails letting me know that the federal recognition process was getting a giant overhaul. Accompanying the e-mails were attachments of letters, revised drafts, etc. Most seemed optimistic. My response was simple. If it sounds too good to be true, it is too good to be true.

Within days reality set in. Major political figures who were instrumental in stopping tribes previously sprung from their slumber, while the announcement of equitable meetings to be held across the country reared their actual heads to the light of day. The primary morning sessions to discuss federal recognition would be federally recognized only affairs, since it makes highly logical sense to discuss the process without the input of those who have actually been negatively impacted. It is kind of like the days when all white city councils would sit around together and decide what was the best course of action for all their local town community members (including Black residents).

As the only tribe in the nation to have pursued all three available routes to federal recognition to include the Office of Federal Acknowledgement, Congress, and a federal lawsuit, we may have a little insight into this process. As a tribal community whose language tapes and Indian boarding school records were mysteriously deemed received “out of time” and therefore not able to be considered in our petition, we know a thing or two. As a tribe who was called Black at a genealogical conference at Samford University in Alabama by current Office of Federal Acknowledgment Director Lee Fleming prior to his working for the BIA, we may know just a couple of things about bias. His comment that the attendance of our people and other historic “non-federal” tribes at Indian boarding schools was simply a federal “mistake” may crave a little further investigation as well. His getting of then Assistant Secretary Kevin Gover to sign off on a negative determination after only his second day on the job (a decision Gover said was a mistake in Congressional Testimony in 2004) was indicative of his underhandedness. So there is problem number one.

Leaving the same leader and staff at the helm of a supposed revised process is about the equivalent of telling the government of North Korea that they are now a democratic republic and insuring the standing leadership remains in place to get the job done. In any normal workplace, individuals who have shown the level of incompetence, inconsistency, and vendetta which has been evidenced within OFA, would have been terminated long ago. Only in the fantasy land that is the Indian service can individuals whose tactics have been maligned in book after book, academic journal after journal, and newspaper article after article, continue on in their present positions. The leader and his staff didn’t consistently follow the previous regulations. Why should any of us be inclined to believe that they would follow these?

While space doesn’t allow for any comprehensive suggestions, I will stick to just a small grouping of many that should be immediately considered with the unfortunate understanding that by writing this someone could insinuate that I am therefore lending my support to the existence of the Office of Federal Acknowledgment. OFA is as equal a colonizing enterprise as any in history. Be sure that I believe that some branch of a branch of a branch determining who is and who is not Indian is ridiculous and that adhering to these I have listed below as somehow defining “Indian community” is just contributing to the colonial project further. Even so, here I go. 

First, living language communities should be immediately considered or reconsidered for recognition. A living language community for the purpose of federal recognition petitioning would be those tribes who have retained their indigenous language(s) from the beginning of their people to the present day. This definition would also include those tribes who maintained fluent speakers into contemporary times and implemented on-going revitalization programs prior to the passing of their remaining fluent speakers.

Second, would be those tribes who attended the federal and closely related mission Indian boarding schools. The reality that there exist tribes who generationally attended the Indian boarding schools, but have now been marginalized from the system, should be clearly acknowledged. What could be a more obvious marker of continuous relationship to the Indian service?

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Third, would be those tribes who continue to reside on reservations officially designated by colonial and state governments. This is being kicked around in the current revisions. Last time I checked, one could find Indians living on Indian reservations. 

In fourth place may be those tribes who have high rates of intermarriage with other federal tribes. Is it a social possibility that federal tribes have generationally married into these primarily small, marginalized tribal communities if they were not Indians? Did all these fed Indians just randomly create marriage patterns in non-Indian, primarily isolated, rural communities with little job security and disenfranchised histories?

Fifth in line may be those tribes who were disallowed attendance at area white and Black schools throughout the segregation period.

Sixth, may take into account the tribes with Indian designations on Census, military, and education records, along with those who have piles of letters from political officials, federal and historic “non-federal” tribes, anthropologists, ethnologists, historians, and non-Indian scholars and academics. That would probably be too much to ask.

As a last suggestion here I will say that tribes who have retained separate languages and cultural spaces from federal tribes who have politically consumed them, should be afforded an opportunity to remove themselves from their legal grip.

Sadly, there have been tribes which clearly demonstrate all or many of these obvious attributes, which demonstrate both a federal relationship and easily defined social and cultural realities, who have already been denied recognition. These denied tribes must have first consideration in any supposed revised regulations and Lee Fleming must be removed from overseeing any facet of their reconsiderations. These tribes, not groups, have paid the greatest of prices in this haphazard, unpredictable, poorly steered process.

On August 6 at the Tunica Biloxi Reservation in Louisiana (a tribe which drafted a letter to Congress supporting our tribe’s federal recognition petition) our people will be showing up for the 9:00 a.m. meeting available only to “federal Indians.” With the high rate of intermarriage by federal tribes amongst our people, we will let the BIA sort out which ones of us “qualify” for admittance and which ones do not. It should be a fun time of merriment, fellowship, and joy. I hear that federally recognized coffee they serve in those meetings is simply the best.

Cedric Sunray is a culturally, socially, linguistically, politically, generationally, by blood, sweat, and tears connected member of the MOWA Band of Choctaw Indians. He holds both bachelor and master degrees in Indigenous/Native Studies and formerly attended Haskell Indian Nations University. Currently he attends the University of Oklahoma College of Law and has previously taught indigenous/American Indian studies at six colleges and universities (including two tribal colleges). His primary focuses have been on language revitalization in indigenous communities and federal recognition/identity politics.