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Traditional Government and Federal Recognition Bids Don’t Mix

While the Office of Federal Acknowledgment is reconsidering the criteria for gaining federal recognition, it should consider oral history.

While the Office of Federal Acknowledgment is reconsidering the rules and criteria for gaining federal recognition, it should consider the way oral history is understood in its evaluations of recognition petitions.

Generally, oral histories are considered guideposts for interpreting the history and culture of a petitioning community. Oral histories, however, are not used as direct evidence. The logic here is very legalistic—in court a person’s pleas of innocence, while noted, are not understood as evidence, rather they are seen as a claim that needs discussion and are then considered with the entirety of the evidence. Oral history, whether given by political leaders or elders, carry the norms, values, stories, and knowledge of an Indian community and is considered hearsay, unless supported by independent documentation.

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Indian nations continue to rely heavily on oral traditions. Elders are respected for their knowledge and understanding of community, history, values, songs, and ceremonies. Oral traditions play significant roles in most Indian nations, federally recognized or not.

In traditional times, communities made notes about events through wampum belts, winter counts, rock drawings, birch back drawings, and other remembrance recordings. Certain individuals, often trained from youth, were dedicated to remembering the events, treaties, and community history that was written to remember and keep the knowledge and lessons of the past. Many wampum belts and other remembrance devices have survived through the events of removal, reservation life, and assimilation programs.

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For many tribes, however, the remembrance tools and methods of the past have not survived, and all we are left with is the record of community elders. While the memories of elders may not stretch back hundreds of years, most remember their lifetimes, and perhaps the wisdom of a generation or two of elders.

Tribal nations are oral nations, even with remembrance tools or records. The history of the nation was contained in the elders and leaders who seek out historical and cultural knowledge and understanding. The OFA wants to use oral history as a guide while looking for documentary evidence. When a tribe meets, the OFA says the best evidence is the list of attendees, the agenda for the meeting, and the minutes or written record of the meetings.

This kind of record keeping was not done by many Indian nations. By requiring minutes and written records, the OFA suggests that Indian governments should have adopted U.S. bureaucratic procedures. Few Indian nations would have recorded and archived written documents unless they adopted a constitutional government. While some Indian nations have adopted constitutional governments as early as the 1820s, most have not.

Unrecognized tribes must prove their community cultural continuity and political government participation. If many unrecognized Indian nations are still working with traditional forms of political organization, usually based on kinship groups like families, lineages, clans, moieties, and sometimes village or band kinship groups, they have not adopted constitutions or bylaws.

Therefore their government procedures do not require written records for meetings—honor, consensus, and memory of the participants is enough. Non-recognized tribal nations that are still organized by families and kinship are at a severe disadvantage for recognition since they will not have preserved written records of their meetings.

The OFA should not force written record-keeping requirements on tribal communities when they continue to operate political community through an alliance of kinship groups. If a tribe adopts a constitutional government, then written records may be natural. Communities that are wholly organized along traditional rules of government are at severe disadvantage for federal recognition under both present and revised OFA rules of evidence for federal recognition.