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'Federally Recognized' Often Misued

A column by Cedric Sunray about federal recognition of American Indian tribes.

I recently read an article concerning the murder of a highly articulate, cultural young Indian woman who was attending the University of North Carolina when this horrific tragedy occurred. She is an enrolled member of the historic Haliwa-Saponi tribe. The last sentence of the article stated, “The tribe … lacks federal recognition.”

Lacks? What on Earth does the murder of an Indian woman have to do with federal recognition and why was this even mentioned? Another recent article in The Tulsa World ended with, “The only federally recognized tribe in Alabama, the 3,000-citizen Poarch Band of Creek Indians also operates casinos in Montgomery and Atmore.” This occurs time and time again in both non-Indian and Indian news media.

When I contacted one of the editors at the newspaper I explained to him that the oldest Indian reservations in the country are inhabited by “non-federal” tribes and that over 20 “non-federal” tribes attended Indian boarding schools established by both the federal government and closely related missions. He explained to me that he was unaware of this history. He was aware, however, that many members of federal tribes in his neck of the woods (northeastern Oklahoma) were of predominant white ancestry and that these individuals had only recently become tribally involved. There was a discomfort in his voice regarding this issue and its implications.

Other articles have included statements such as, “We are the first federally recognized tribe to operate a rehabilitation center for injured birds.” That would make sense to write this because injured birds prefer “federally recognized” Indians to care for them in life and death situations.

The “federally recognized” moniker is misused in many other forums as well. The Indian art world is a perfect example. One tribe in Northeastern Oklahoma created a “Truth In Advertising Act,” which circumvents the Indian Arts & Crafts Act definition of Indian artisans as members of state or federally recognized tribes, or those individuals designated as such by a state or federal tribe. Their act only allows goods to be sold as “Indian made” in their tribally owned stores in their fourteen county jurisdiction if the artisan is an enrolled member of a federal tribe. In this way, members of historic “non-federal” tribes who have been the recipients of systemic oppression by federal policies, indigenous people from countries in Central and South America who reside here, enrolled members of Canadian First Nations, tribal people from the Pacific islands, etc. are excluded, while members of federal tribes in the 1/256 and much lower blood quantum range can and are marketing their work as “Indian.”

Does that sound like “truth in advertising”? Would the unsuspecting buyer of “Indian” art really be pursuing a piece of “Indian” art created by someone who is 1/256 Indian by blood if they were aware of this? And what about the numerous CDIB carrying “Indian” academics I have worked with whose connections to their tribal origins are at best as distant as their ancestry? They tend to be the ones screaming “wannabe” towards others the loudest due to their own identity insecurities. If people want to throw around Elizabeth Warren as the “box checker”, they better have the guts to step up to those folks first. Going after Warren is like shooting fish in a barrel. Seeing recent articles about her proclaiming that she can’t prove ancestry to a “federally recognized” Delaware or Cherokee tribe is at best laughable.

Ironically, “federally recognized” conveys power and legitimacy to the vast majority of both non-Indians and Indians as they have no context in which to observe and interpret it. Media needs to get to an honest representation of defining this phenomenon. Stating that such-and-such tribe is listed on the federal register and as such receives funding for their various programs just doesn’t have the same ring of “authenticity” and “pinnacle of Indianness” as the shorter “federally recognized.” “Federally recognized” doesn’t address the era in which one obtained federal recognition.

And the timeframe speaks volumes in terms of the ease or difficulty inherent in obtaining such a designation or the political impossibility. It doesn’t address the current state of affairs of the recognized group in terms of social, cultural, linguistic, racial, or other noteworthy realities that are part and parcel to marginalization and discrimination. The federal recognition process has been highly criticized as completely bias in countless books, academic articles, magazines, newspapers, and just about every other form of media imaginable. Relying on a decision from the Office of Federal Acknowledgment for legitimacy is about as close in form as relying on an all white jury in Alabama back in the 1950s to bring justice to a black defendant.

“Federal recognition” rhetoric is a matter of convenience, expedience, and power. The result is the disenfranchisement of many Indian people who have lived through the reality of being Indian. In an effort to stop illegitimate, newly arrived groups from access, the mentality has become to “throw the baby out with the bathwater.” It all seems harmless, unless your tribe is the baby.

As someone who has spent years with many members of historic “non-federal” tribes who have endured this reality, I can say with certainty that the failed hypothesis of “federally recognized as definer of ‘real’ Indian” is a form of violence. It can no longer be downplayed as a political judgment. From harmful slights such as no access to medical services to silly attempts at belittling (such as not being invited along with federal tribal leaders to speak with Obama each year), the level of disrespect and its acceptance has become pervasive.

I have sat with those “non-federal” who were sent over 1,000 miles from their homes as children to attend Indian boarding schools such as Haskell in Lawrence, Kansas. I have eaten in two hundred year old “non-federal” reservation homes where countless generations of families have walked across the same wood floors and looked out over the same reservation lands. Attempting to appeal to people’s sensibilities is impossible in the tidal wave of casino cash, lobbyist leadership, entrenched bureaucratic positions, and identity insecurity psychosis which define Indian Country’s mechanisms of control.

As one member of a federal tribe in Eastern Oklahoma told me, “Ced, everyone gets your point, but we would have to entirely change the way we do things to accommodate the needs of only a small number of legitimate non-recognized tribes who fall outside the system. With so many fakes waiting in the wings, we can’t do that.”

Maybe he and the rest should remember, discomfort is one of two siblings of justice and the way to remember those elders who have endured Indian reality, as well as the brightest young Indian people in our communities whose lives were taken from us long before their time, requires the most important of the sisters and brothers…respect.

Cedric Sunray is the project coordinator for the Haskell Endangered Legacy Project (H.E.L.P.).