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Always the Warrior, But Never a Member of a Federally Recognized Tribe

Does anyone remember an incident in Spokane, Washington, when the Salvation Army turned away a Turtle Mountain Chippewa family for emergency shelter because they did not accept Tribal Identifications? It was in January 2007 and the family slept in their car in below-zero temperatures. After media attention and many, many complaints the Salvation Army apologized and looked at their policy. Their business administrator, Richard Silva, told the local paper, “That was not just wrong, it’s illegal,” and they began the process of educating themselves, including meeting with tribal agencies and individuals.

I e-mailed them at the time and Mr. Silva replied to me personally, including the following: “On behalf of the Spokane Salvation Army, this letter is to apologize to those Native American families—and particularly Darrell and Beverly Azure—for the error and oversight in our shelter policy regarding acceptable forms of ID, which has resulted in the denial of services to them. And personally, I deeply regret that I did not become aware of this policy much sooner. After a significant (and much overdue) scrutiny of the specific ID and related intake policies, I have initiated an immediate change in our shelter intake requirements that took effect midday on January 19, 2007, and which will be in accordance with the federal government’s DHS Form I-9 regarding acceptance of Tribal IDs.”

I very much appreciated the sincerity and work they began quickly. It cannot be denied that the Salvation Army also helps many, many people looking for support.

At the time I thought: “This is 2007. I can’t believe this!” Naturally, my feelings were not simply anger. I was hurt, too, at the ongoing, never-ending, education—always the result of trauma put upon a Native individual or group—that must occur over and over again to reach non-Natives about the laws, sovereignty, traditions and basic respect our people deserve.

Now here we are in 2014, and a member of a federally recognized Washington tribe living in Oregon is told by their Department of Motor Vehicles that they do not recognize Washington tribal IDs. This was in response to her attempts to renew her driver’s license in a state where she has lived for many years.

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Oregon generally has a reputation for being progressive, inclusive and perhaps even on the forefront of embracing diversity in all forms. But unlike the immediate response I received from Mr. Silva, and despite being inundated with calls and e-mails, I have yet to hear from anyone within Oregon agencies and tribal liaisons about the reason behind what I consider an illegal policy. I began e-mailing different people, including the Oregon governor’s office and members of Congress in a respectful manner.

Full disclosure, this affects a family member, but I have advocated for many years for Native people. My family member had her military ID, birth certificate, social security card, and her Tribal ID to prove her citizenship. She made four trips back and forth to try and meet the varying, and seemingly arbitrary, requirements of the Oregon DMV.

This may be the experience of many Oregonians attempting to navigate the bureaucracy of a DMV office, but in this case, race was a factor. The message is that we are invisible, we are not “recognized,” the rights that our ancestors fought for do not count, again. Sadly, until tribal identification is treated on an equal basis with state governments, the same thing will occur tomorrow and many tomorrows to come.

Our Tribal IDs count.

Charlene Abrahamson (Spokane) is director of a Behavioral Health program for Native people. She has been in the field for more than 10 years, with a focus on social justice and work with Native adolescents. For many years she has been as an elected advisor to Squaxin Island Youth Council.