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Recognizing the Problems of Tribal Recognition

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To delve into the waters of tribal recognition is to wade in the muddiest of pools rife with greed, racism and political agendas. Right now, there are bands, tribes and nations all over the country that meet or exceed the federal criteria for recognition but, it is unlikely that these groups will ever see justice in the form of recognition. From my own observation, the nations of the New England coastal region, particularly those of the Metro New York area and Connecticut have been subject to the gravest of injustices in their respective petitions for federal recognition.

Since the inception of the process, only one local nation has been granted recognition. The Shinnecock Nation, my kin, have had to devote over thirty years of work and thirty million dollars to see justice done. If that is indeed the standard of justice as seen by the BIA and the Dept. of the Interior, I render a vote of no confidence in the process itself and the people behind it.

The process itself has many obstacles that constitute the recognition criteria but, what are the other obstacles? Money is the prevailing obstacle for most. The legal costs are astronomical and often prove to be a petitioning nation’s steepest hurdle. Even if a petitioner can manage the exorbitant costs, there is still a financial based hurdle present. That is in the form of previously recognized nations who don’t want to see diluted funding for federal programs ear marked for Indians. The bitter truth is that there are Indian people who actively discourage the recognition of other Indian people for the sake of money by calling these petitioners “illegitimate” tribes and nations. I can understand and expect state and local municipalities to resist as recognition could bring repercussions such as land claims, loss of tax revenue and potential reparations issues. I can even understand nations that depend on federal funds giving some resistance. What I don’t understand is how one Indian can look at another and say, “No, they don’t deserve recognition because they are not Indians and it may cost me”, despite the petitioner’s documented history and heritage. It is a sad state of Indian affairs when an Indian nation would rather exclude another than fight for more fairly funded programs.

Racism is the next hurdle. My own nations, the Montaukett and Matinecock, as well as other Long Island nations, the Unkechaug and Shinnecock, were subject to laws defining who they could marry since the settlers arrived. There were no repercussions for an Indian marrying and accepting a white person into the tribal or familial structure. The laws specifically punished the marriage of “strange Indians” (those outside of the tribe) and African Americans. In my opinion, the tribes of coastal New England are being punished for breaking the “one drop rule”. That is, if there is “one drop” of African blood in your lineage then, you are Black and your status as an Indian is forfeit. The nations of Long Island broke that law by marrying African Americans from the late 1700’s on and paid the price by having their status as Indians questioned or, in the case of the Montaukett, removed entirely. The only standard that follows Indian traditional practice is the kinship standard. I am proud of my own nation, and our surrounding sister nations, for following the tradition that accepts “of the blood” but rejects the concept of the blood quantum. When I see my kin of all shades honoring their ancestry, I see tradition carried on despite unjust laws. Those who oppose our status as Indians or recognition base on this fact only see color.

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Political agendas make up the vaguest of hurdles. Recognition of “new” tribes brings political upheaval. Treaties, land claims, existing compacts and more must be revised and remade in light of another recognized tribe. Although the petitioning nation may not be large in terms of population, the political implications of a new nation within an existing political structure is intimidating enough that many politicians won’t support a revisal of the process or a nation with a just claim. More often, we see outright resistance as in the state of Connecticut and specifically Sen. Blumenthal. In my opinion, this has more to do with gaming compacts than the concerns of the revoked status and rights of the petitioners.

Given all of this , I often ask myself, “Why does my nation subject itself to this process?”. The only answer that comes to mind is simply because we have to. We must fight to right the injustices of the past and create a brighter future for Indian people on our island, Sewanahke. We deserve recognition because it was stolen from us through legal loopholes, intimidation and thievery in the name of commerce. We can’t give up until we know that there is a future where we can re-establish Indian communities within our ancestral homeland. We can’t stop until all of our kin, the Montaukett, the Shinnecock, the Matinecock, the Unkechaug, the Brothertown Indian Nation and others have their rightful place as recognized Indian nations. I won’t stop until the day comes when our people can live and work together as living Indian nations educating our children and caring for our elders and warriors in our traditional ways. I may walk on before ever seeing that day but, it does not and will not stop me from working to make that a reality. 

Mark Rogers is a citizen of the Montaukett and Matinecock Nations located in Long Island, New York where he is known as Toyupahs Cuyahnu (Crazy Turtle). He has served as a grassroots activist in the African American and Native communities and is a proud veteran NCO of the U.S. Army Reserves Medical Corps. He is presently working on a writing career and seeks to aid fellow veterans through his writing.