Skip to main content

Brothertown member to Dorgan: ‘Structural violence’ underlies federal Indian policies

WASHINGTON – A member of the Brothertown Indian Nation has written to the head of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs supporting his efforts to fix the federal recognition process and condemning the “structural violence” of federal Indian policies.

Kathleen A. Brown-Pérez, chair of the Brothertown Indian Nation’s federal acknowledgment committee and an attorney, said she was prompted to write SCIA Chairman Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., after watching a committee oversight hearing on “Fixing the Federal Acknowledgment Process” Nov. 4. Dorgan invited people to submit comments to the committee.

“My goal in writing to the senator is to point out just how broken it is,” said Brown-Pérez, who is currently an assistant professor teaching honor students in the Native American Indian Studies Certificate Program at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

The process is actually an existential threat to some nations, Brown-Pérez said.

American Indians and tribes continue to exist despite the direct historical violence of disease, massacres, warfare, and enslavement, she wrote to Dorgan Dec. 10.

“The structural violence, however, continues in the form of federal Indian policies, regardless of what they’re called that year or that decade. These policies, both alone and in conjunction with cultural stereotypes, act to define American Indian people with respect to someone else’s rules,” she wrote.

The Brothertown Indian Nation began its federal recognition process three decades ago and filed its petition in 1996. Last August, the BIA’s Office of Federal Acknowledgment issued a Proposed Finding to deny the nation federal status. The bureau said BIN failed to meet five of the seven mandatory criteria for federal acknowledgment.

Most controversial is the OFA’s statement that the BIN was terminated by Congress in 1839 when members sought and received U.S. citizenship.

To reach that conclusion, the OFA reversed a 1993 opinion in a memorandum from the Interior Department’s Office of the Solicitor which concurred with an earlier finding by the Office of the Field Solicitor in Twin Cities that the act of 1839 “did not constitute termination of the Brothertown tribe.”

The memorandum went on to say the solicitor’s office had no information about whether the contemporary tribe would meet the criteria for federal acknowledgment, but it was eligible to try.

“We’ve spent three decades mired in the bureaucratic regulations that are supposed to fix an attempt to define us out of existence. They don’t call it removal or assimilation, but the prospect for lasting effects is terrifying. All of this happened during a policy period called ‘self-determination,’” Brown-Pérez wrote.

Dorgan, who has been holding hearings about fixing the federal acknowledgment process for years, has a firm grip on the state of the process.

“People will be born and people will die in the middle of that process without getting answers,” Dorgan said at the hearing, referencing the experience of the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians.

Little Shell filed for its letter of intent to petition in 1978, completed its petition in 1985, was given federal recognition in a proposed finding in 2000, and had it reversed in a Final Determination in October.

Brown-Pérez told ICT she was particularly moved by Little Shell President John Sinclair’s testimony at the hearing. Sinclair called for “justice” for his nation and said the BIA’s treatment of Little Shell “undermines sovereignty for all tribes.”

“‘I felt like a kind of soul mate to him. I really understood what they were going through. It was so horrible. When I hear of tribes like Little Shell and Schaghticoke getting federal acknowledgment and then having it taken away from them, as a lawyer the first thing I think is intentional infliction of emotional distress, and I would sue for that,” Brown-Pérez said.

In her letter, she outlined BIN’s unique history. It was in 1785 by her 10th great-grandfather; the famous Mohegan minister Samson Occom, who gathered members of various eastern coastal nations battered almost to extinction by more than 100 years of European invasion, colonization, wars and disease, and formed the nation in upstate New York where the Oneida Indian Nation had set aside land for them. The community later moved to Wisconsin where a majority of members still live.

But all tribes have their own unique histories, Brown-Pérez said, and that’s why the federal acknowledgment’s one-size-fits-all process doesn’t work.

“I have serious doubts that most of the 564 federally acknowledged tribes could meet OFA’s pan-Indian standards,” she wrote.

Listening to the testimony at the hearing, Brown-Pérez kept thinking about what could be done to fix the system, “but I don’t have any answers. I wish I did. It’s just so wrong. And when you consider how the process has changed from what it was in the ’70s and ’80s when you could submit a 100-page petition to what it’s turned into – a great big monster where you have to have 50,000 pages and millions of dollars to document your existence. Brothertown is fortunate to have 4,000 members, some of whom can help out financially, but how can a small tribe of 200 to 300 people do that?”

Among the other hearing witnesses were Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs George Skibine and Lee Fleming, OFA director. Skibine plans to review and revise the federal recognition regulations during the next two years.

Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., chair of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, invited interested parties to submit comments to the committee following a Nov. 4 oversight hearing on “Fixing the Federal Acknowledgment Process.” George Skibine, the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, who testified at the hearing said he planned to review and revise the regulations over the next two years. Barry Piatt, the SCIA’s senior advisor and communications director, answered the following questions concerning that process. Indian Country today: What happens to the letters sent to Sen. Dorgan?

Barry Piatt: Committee staff and the senator read them. ICT: Does the senator actually read them?

BP: Yes. ICT: How many letters have you received in response to Sen. Dorgan’s request?

BP: Just a few, but there have been others sent after previous hearings, and such letters, even if just a few, help us to determine whether there is a need to continue monitoring the matter and the (Interior) Department’s progress. ICT: Have you heard anything from the BIA?

BP: The acting principal deputy assistant secretary for Indian Affairs from the Department of Interior testified at the hearing, and we are preparing follow up questions to the department to be answered. Also, the Department has informed us that they are looking into either changing the regulations or issuing new guidance. ICT: What’s the process for revising the regulations on federal recognition?

BP: The Department of Interior on its own could institute some administrative reforms to speed the process of getting a decision. Legislation could also require such action. No legislation is currently before the committee to revise the tribal recognition procedures, but a bill is pending in the House of Representatives (Representative Faleomavaega has a bill). The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs hearing was an oversight hearing, and the committee is continuing to gather information on the issue to determine whether a bill should be introduced in the Senate. The Indian Legal Clinic at Arizona State University College of Law is conducting additional research and providing recommendations to the committee in the upcoming weeks.