Recognition issues may kill Indian Affairs panel

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NASHVILLE (MCT) – Nearly 180 years after President Andrew Jackson forcibly began uprooting American Indians from the Southeast, a Tennessee commission that deals with Native American issues may die amid a fight involving groups wanting state recognition.

The already troubled Tennessee Commission of Indian Affairs suffered a blow last month when the Tennessee General Assembly’s Joint Government Operations Subcommittee on Agriculture and Natural Resources failed to act on a motion extending the agency’s existence.

“I guess this is a good day to die,” Indian Affairs Commissioner Bill Wells told lawmakers during the hearing. He called the effort to kill the seven-member commission “another slap against the Native Americans of Tennessee.”

That doesn’t mean the commission is necessarily finished. Lawmakers on the full Government Operations Committees or the entire legislature could grant the panel, now scheduled to go out of existence June 30, 2010, a new lease on life. In fact, in 2007 lawmakers rejected committee recommendations and approved extending it to 2010.

At issue are efforts by Tennessee-based groups seeking official state recognition as American Indian tribes. Such recognition, some proponents say, would result in cultural and economic benefits, making groups potentially eligible for government grants. Others question some groups’ legitimacy as American Indian.

Tom Kunesh is an Indian Affairs commissioner from Chattanooga whose mother is a member of the federally recognized Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in the Dakotas.

“The bigger thing at stake is essentially who is considered Indian in the state and who is in control of the commission,” he said.

Kunesh said American Indians who don’t “buy” claims by some groups “are now called foreigners and non-indigenous. It’s kind of crazy.” He favors abolishing the panel if lawmakers do not give it more powers.

During the 2009 legislative session, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, who is Senate speaker, and House Republican Leader Jason Mumpower of Bristol pushed legislation that would have resulted in official state recognition of the “Remnant Yuchi Nation” of Kingsport and other groups.

Kunesh described the Yuchi group, whose members live in Ramsey’s district, as “a fraudulent culture club.”

Ramsey said he delayed the bill so the issue could be considered more fully. But he charged the TCIA is “dominated by people whose ultimate goal is to keep Indian tribes from being recognized by the state of Tennessee.”

The lieutenant governor opposes renewing the TCIA. He said lawmakers can enact their own guidelines on what constitutes a qualified group, create a new panel and put it under the secretary of state’s office. An administrative law judge can settle disputes, he said.

“I don’t want anybody recognized who shouldn’t be legitimately recognized. There are times I wish I’d never seen this,” Ramsey said, noting he was simply trying to help constituents. “I was eaten up with e-mails from both sides. This is a very emotional issue.”

Senate Government Operations Committee Chairman Bo Watson, R-Hixson, called the TCIA “somewhat of a dysfunctional group,” noting a state entity “should not continue to exist if they’re not being efficient or effective.”

In documents submitted to the joint Government Operations Subcommittee last month, TCIA said it approved state guidelines for recognizing groups back in 2005. But the commission repealed them as they were about to take effect after being told by a then-chairman to do so, Kunesh said.

That came about after the group was criticized in a 2007 public hearing by the federally recognized Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, which warned lawmakers about “pseudotribes” getting approved. At the same hearing, state-based groups attacked the TCIA standards as designed to keep them from being recognized.

Kunesh said the group is in the process of trying to re-establish the guidelines.

During last month’s hearing, two TCIA members called on lawmakers to let the commission expire. One of them was Indian Affairs Commissioner James E. Meeks, of Tracy City, who belongs to one of the groups seeking recognition – the Chikamaka Band of the Southern Cumberland Plateau. Meeks said the group has members in Marion, Sequatchie, Grundy, Warren, Coffee and Franklin counties.

Meeks said the Chikamaka Band is comprised of descendants of American Indians who hid in the mountains rather than face the 1830s Trail of Tears expulsions.

“It wasn’t until one of our council members passed that our council decided we would open up and let the world know,” said Meeks, who recalled that was about 15 to 20 years ago.

The state needs a Commission of Indian Affairs “but not this one,” he said. He charged the current panel is dominated by “non-Tennessee Indians” who have no business trying to run things.

Panel’s purpose

• Deal fairly and effectively with Indian affairs.

• Research and find local, state and federal resources of funding and other assistance for the implementation or continuation of meaningful programs for Indian citizens of Tennessee.

• Provide aid and protection for Indians as needs are demonstrated.

• Promote recognition of and the right of Indians to pursue cultural and religious traditions considered by them to be sacred and meaningful to Native Americans.

History: The TCIA was created in the early 1980s. State lawmakers allowed it to go out of existence in 2001 after squabbles with then-Gov. Don Sundquist over commission appointments and disputes over state Transportation Department treatment of historic Native American sites.

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