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American Indian Untouchables and the 2012 White House Tribal Leaders Summit

Dear Indian Country Today Media Network Editor & Staff,

I recently read the article by Rob Capriccioso "Obama Does It Again: White House Tribal Nations Conference" at ICTMN. I would like to offer an additional perspective on the issue of consultation regarding the White House Tribal Nations Conference as a tribal leader and General Secretary of the Alliance of Colonial Era Tribes (ACET). I feel this is a timely piece and I appreciate your consideration. I look forward to hearing from you.


Rev. John Norwood
Councilman - Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribal Nation
General Secretary - Alliance of Colonial Era Tribes

The Obama administration has once again demonstrated its concern for the issues of Indian country by holding another Tribal Leaders Summit on December 5, 2012. Top administration officials, and the president himself, addressed hundreds of tribal leaders who gathered to hear what would be on the president’s “radar” for Indian Country during his second term in office. The well-crafted event addressed many key concerns. And, to the delight of attendees, the president affirmed his commitment to “getting the relationship right” between the federal government and tribal governments. The unspoken caveat in this was that the president was not speaking about getting the relationship right with all historic tribal governments, but only those acknowledged as such by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA).

Many leaders from historic tribal nations were left uninvited to this event. There are those who have alleged that it may be because those not invited lack the Bureau’s stamp of approval and were deemed unworthy by the gate-keepers at the White House. Non-BIA tribes have become increasingly accustomed to having federal doors shut in their faces and their cry for justice left unheard. These non-BIA listed historic tribes are apparently viewed like an American version of India’s oppressed and excluded cultural caste of “untouchables.” It is as though such non-BIA listed American Indian “untouchables” would bring an unsavory element to a summit dedicated to “getting the relationship right” with Indian Country. This “relationship” is one that is declared to be based on the “government-to-government” / “trust” relationship between the federal government and BIA listed tribes. Its application is a revisionist construct that denies the complicated and contradictory history of federal acknowledgment and federal interaction with tribes. It is applied because it is convenient, expedient, and serves the federal government’s presumed authority to define and determine tribal governments.

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There are some within Indian country, and some American Indians placed in federal positions, who support a federally imposed apartheid-style structure that divides historic tribes between the “included” and “excluded.” It begs the question, “Do the majority of BIA listed tribes feel that non-BIA listed tribes are unworthy of the consideration of the federal government?” Not if one considers the October 2012 vote overwhelmingly affirming their membership within the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI)… not if one looks at the testimonies of those recently acknowledged tribes which fought for years to make their way through an increasingly hostile, demeaning, and unpredictable federal acknowledgment process… not if one looks at the call of the NCAI Resolution #PSP-09-008 which resolved that the Obama administration should extend consultation and the nation-to-nation relationship to non-BIA listed tribes. There appears to be a growing awareness among many leaders of BIA listed tribes of how a climate of exclusion undermines the unity of Indian Country and the inherent dignity of all indigenous nations.

That is not to say that President Obama is insensitive. He has proven to be a man of deep conscience and great empathy for the disenfranchised. I hold the president in high regard. His work to address many long overlooked tribal issues is admirable and I applaud him and his administration for it. The crucial concerns of BIA listed tribes should be on his agenda and it appears that they are getting more of the attention that they deserve. But that does not mean that the concerns and struggles of non-BIA listed tribes should be off of his agenda and that such historic tribes are unworthy of any attention. Of all of the important issues addressed at the White House Tribal Leaders Summit, the issues of the broken federal acknowledgment system or the plight of non-BIA listed tribes went unmentioned in official reports.

There was no apparent concern for historic tribes which struggle to protect their children without the benefit of being included in the Indian Child Welfare Act or which struggle to protect the graves of their ancestors without being included in the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. Sadly, no summit report mentions that the Department of Justice and the Bureau of Indian Affairs recently tightened their interpretation of the Morton Policy and further disenfranchised Non-BIA listed tribal citizens from being able to legally possess eagle feathers for prayer and to honor the achievements of their people. There was no discussion as to how Bureau of Indian Education policy has shifted to exclude citizens of non-BIA listed tribes, even though many such tribes had citizens attend these schools previously. The reports from the summit indicate that no such crucial issues were raised, because it is becoming the practice that those who would passionately voice such concerns from personal experience are “untouchables” who often receive callous disregard and have no voice at such meetings.

The plight of non-BIA listed historic tribes is not unknown. Congressional hearings have produced volumes of testimony. The new Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, Kevin Washburn, has acknowledged a unanimous dissatisfaction with the broken federal recognition process expressed from both Capitol Hill and by tribal leaders. The recent addendum on the situation of indigenous peoples in the United States of America in the Report of the Special Rapporteur, James Anaya, on the rights of indigenous peoples to the United Nations General Assembly mentions the inequities of the federal acknowledgment process and how it has left many tribes “especially disadvantaged.”

Given the Obama administration’s determination to “getting the relationship right” with America’s indigenous people, it is important that the “especially disadvantaged” non-BIA listed historic tribes be engaged and heard by the administration. Amid all of the concerns and crises in Indian country, the inequities of the federal acknowledgment process and the disenfranchisement of many historic tribes must be addressed if justice is to be done. There should be no “untouchables” among historic tribes. The inherent dignity of all historic tribes must be respected. That respect can be initially demonstrated by the administration hearing and heading the voices of all tribal leaders, even those from non-BIA listed tribes. 

Pastor John Norwood is a Christian minister, Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribal Councilman, and General Secretary of the Alliance of Colonial Era Tribes.