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Miwok Tribe Settles Lengthy Sovereignty Dispute

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STOCKTON, Calif.—Although the tribal nation currently has a small membership—of five people, to be precise—and tribal headquarters are in a leafy residential neighborhood rather than on vast trust lands, the future looks promising for some Natives living in the San Joaquin Valley.

The California Valley Miwok Tribe fought a lengthy battle with the BIA, state government, various factions and, some say, criminal elements to retain or recover sovereignty-related rights the federally-recognized tribe never actually lost in the first place.

Then in December the U.S. government reaffirmed its relationship with the Miwok.

“We’re really, really excited—we’ve been through a lot, but we’re just looking to the future,” Silvia Burley, tribal chairwoman, said by phone. “It’s a victory for tribal sovereignty and a victory for all the tribes.”

The government’s action will enable the tribe to enroll eligible members and conduct other necessary tribal business, said attorney Robert Rosette, Rosette and Associates, who provided legal assistance that preceded the federal decision.

Any decision about whether to adopt a new constitution or to admit new tribal citizens to participate in that effort must be made by the tribe, not the BIA, according to the federal ruling, which said the correct process for eligible applicants is “to work through the tribe’s internal process for gaining citizenship.”

The tribe, one of about a dozen federally recognized Miwok bands in California, is located on aboriginal lands in the heart of the state’s present-day agricultural belt west of the Sierra Nevada.

The tribe was the subject of a number of letters to the BIA from people alleging they were members, prompting the BIA to issue “recommendations” to widen membership and reorganize--suggestions that were later shown to be non-binding.

Both regional and agency-level BIA officials in 2007 had agreed that the Central California BIA superintendent should “assist” the tribe in organizing its government, but while the Interior Board of Indian Appeals dismissed some of the tribe’s complaints, it referred a government and membership issue to the office of the Secretary of the Interior, which decided in the tribe’s favor.

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Larry Echo Hawk, assistant secretary for Indian Affairs, referring to the “highly contentious period of the tribe’s history,” urged internal cohesion, but also rescinded an earlier BIA public notice announcing a pending tribal reorganization.

Echo Hawk also rescinded letters saying that the BIA would initiate the reorganization process, that the BIA did not recognize the tribe’s government, and that Burley was merely a “person of authority” in the tribe.

“This administration said the tribe and its members and government are entirely responsible for determining membership—not the BIA. It’s a huge, huge victory for all tribes,” Rosette asserted.

The tribe operates by resolution—a form of government exercised by other tribes and upheld by Interior—and can draft a new membership ordinance by resolution if it chooses to do so, he said by phone.

While membership procedures are being drafted, “everyone is going to be treated fairly,” said Burley who, with Rashel Reznor, secretary-treasurer, constitutes the tribe’s present government. The three other current, federally recognized tribal members are a teenaged girl, an older woman, and a 70-year-old man, a tribal worker said.

“The tribe is actively working on developing its enrollment criteria and hopes to have applications for enrollment available in the near future,” a tribal press release states, urging people who believe they have Miwok heritage and an affiliation with the tribe to apply when the enrollment process is completed.

“Affiliation with a tribe lies at the core of Indian identity. This is one reason why the Department is working to improve the process by which tribes can become federally recognized, and have their nation-to-nation relationship with the United States restored,” Echo Hawk said, affirming tribal nationhood, not merely tribal government.

In addition to years of internal factional disputes, outside groups—some believed to harbor casino plans—have also become involved, to the point that the tribe’s collective sigh of relief is centered on simply being able to have a functioning government that can satisfy basic needs for health and other social services for members.

But a big lesson was also learned, Rosette said: “These things can still happen—people can still try to take over the tribe.”