The Office of Federal Acknowledgment has the task of reviewing and approving applications for federal recognition. As many as 300 communities have written letters of intent to pursue federal recognition, but the process is long and difficult. One central issue is the definition of a tribe, now and in the past. In the U.S. Constitution, the commerce clause recognizes the Congress; power to regulate trade with Indian tribes. The problem is that the Constitution does not provide a definition of Indian ''tribe.'' Unfortunately, the OFA even in its most recent regulations from earlier this year, continue to require proof of continuous tribal organization, but do not provide a definition of tribe that is acceptable among academics, not to mention how indigenous communities themselves define or understand tribe.
In a recent policy statement published in the federal registry, an OFA example suggests that if a non-recognized community was acknowledged by the federal government at some date, say at the signing of the Constitution, then the applicant would not have to prove tribal organization before that date. The U.S. government, however, has recognized more than 560 tribal communities, and generally each one is considered a tribe. Many of the tribes acknowledged by the federal government do not fit academic definitions of tribe.
In Alaska, about 230 villages comprise about 40 percent of all federally recognized tribes. The Alaska villages are autonomous political and economic groups that exercise local sovereignty over land and community. Many communities throughout North America follow similar social patterns of decentralized political and economic authority.
There are many reservation communities recognized as tribes, where two or more cultural groups comprise the population. For example, the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming is composed of Arapaho and Shoshone communities. The two groups did not share a common language, and did not share common social and political organization before placement on the reservation, where they are required to govern jointly. Similarly, many reservation communities are constructions of the office of Indian affairs, and were considered temporary places where nearby Indian populations, regardless of cultural, linguistic, or political alliances or organization, were gathered onto common reservation territories. The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde have a reservation in Oregon that is a federal government creation. Grand Ronde is comprised of more than seven bands from two language groups. Indian groups from many local areas were transported to the same reservation as a matter of administrative convenience. Early reservation policy was aimed at quick isolation and civilization, and later, allotment of reservation lands before transitioning Indian people into U.S. citizenship and assimilation.
In analysis of a recent petition to OFA from the Indians at the former mission of San Juan Capistrano, now often called Juane?os, were classified as a mission tribal group before 1832. The Spanish Franciscan priests gathered them, taught them agriculture, and used their labor to build and economically support the mission. The mission Indians of San Juan Capistrano were classified by OFA as a historical tribe even though the Spanish Catholic Church assumed control of the land, held powers of enforced labor over Indians, and imposed political authority over them. The priests used their energies and resources to detribalize the Indian neophytes, as the Indians were called in the missions. The mission Indians did not exercise political self-government, have independent political organization, were not free to practice their culture, and lost practical control of the land. Yet the OFA recognized the Juane?o as a mission tribe in 1832.
Many other California Indian mission
populations were composed of geographically local, but culturally and politically distinct groups, village, lineages, and tribelets that exercised local sovereignty, but did not form extensive or centralized political organization. California missions and many federal reservations are not composed of unified and cultural homogenous tribal political and social organizations, but are generally composed of several or more autonomous local and sovereign entities
Rather than forming centralized homogenous nations, missions and reservations are often more akin to international or intertribal associations of local sovereign entities that are reluctant to cede power, even though the federal government chooses to ignore them in favor of more centralized reservation governments, often under federal policy design and organization. In these cases, running tribal governments is more like trying to govern the United Nations than administering municipal, county, state or federal government in European or U.S. tradition.
Despite the inconsistency of American policy in the use of tribe as a political, social, and cultural entity, OFA requires non-recognized Indian communities to prove they are a historically continuous social and political tribe. OFA wants documents of constitutions, records of tribal government meetings, proof of collective political action and influence, records of leadership, and evidence of community social ties and contacts. Tribal social and political organization needs to be externally recognized by non-Indian observers, who unfortunately, are often not adroit or knowledgeable witnesses. OFA wants external evidence and witnesses to verify claims to social, cultural, and political organization and continuity.
Few non-Indian observers today or historically understand the complexities of tribal political organization and social life. Consequently, non-recognized communities are at a significant disadvantage when trying to make historical and contemporary claims to continuous social and political organization. Non-recognized applicants are required to prove they are tribes when very few of the currently federally recognized nations meet the same definition. Non-recognized communities should not have to meet a different standard than currently recognized tribes.
The current definition of tribe used by OFA is not well defined and needs both academic and indigenous community review and discussion. Otherwise many fully deserving non-recognized Indian communities will be required to provide evidence for tribal social and political organization that was never part of their own historical or contemporary tradition or experience. They will be forced to prove forms of tribal organization that do not exist even for current federally recognized tribes.