Shinnecock Nation Achieves Federal Recognition

After 32 years of bureaucratic battles, the Shinnecock Indian Nation has finally received federal recognition as the 565th Tribe to hold a nation-to-nation relationship with the United States government. The Shinnecock Nation is based in Long Island, New York and has approximately 1300 enrolled members and 1200 acres of Tribal land.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs acknowledged the Shinnecock Indian Nation in a Final Determination in June of this year. During the 30-day comment period following the decision, a group called the Connecticut Coalition for Gaming Jobs and a faction of the Montauk Indians of Long Island filed late challenges, asking the Interior Board of Indian Appeals to reconsider the decision. On October 1,2010 the Board rejected the appeals, ruling that neither group had legal standing.

“This closes a chapter in the tribe’s 32 year long struggle to obtain recognition and opens a door to a bright future that will include new opportunities,” said Randy King, chairman of the Shinnecock Indian Nation Board of Trustees. “We’re finally here,” said Lance Gumbs, Shinnecock senior trustee and vice president of the National Congress of American Indians northeastern region. “It’s been 32-and-a-half years,”

As a federally recognized tribe, the Shinnecock are now eligible for federal funding for housing, health and education – and to open a long-planned casino. Congressman Tim Bishop, D-N.Y., released a statement in support of the Nation. “I am pleased that the Bureau of Indian Affairs swiftly dismissed the baseless challenge filed by opponents to the federal recognition of the Shinnecock Indian Nation. Today, the nation’s long struggle for recognition finally comes to an end, and a new chapter opens in their long and proud history. I look forward to helping the Shinnecock access the housing, educational and other important federal benefits they are entitled to under law. I will also continue my collaboration with tribal leaders to improve the standard of living on the Shinnecock Reservation and encourage responsible, sustainable economic development which benefits the tribe and our entire community,” Bishop said.

Federal recognition will offer new opportunities for the Nation, but Shinnecock citizen Beverly Jensen maintains that the new status is not needed strengthen the Nation’s sense of identity or enhance its culture, which its people have worked hard to preserve for centuries. “It’s not something we can forget; it’s ingrained. We’re not going to run and find our culture now that we’re recognized. It’s what we do. It’s why we’re here. We’re here to preserve it,” Jensen said.

After Federal Recognition Is Denied: "Why Didn't They Just Tell Us 'No' 30 Years Ago?"

You have your community and your place to go.  We don't have that.  But we're still together…


They've got their rules, and you've got to fit into the slot.   But we know who we are.


It kind of hurts, naturally, but it's not the end of the line…

These sentiments were expressed by members of Montana's Little Shell Tribe, after receiving notice this week that their petition for federal recognition had been denied – more than 30 years after it was first filed.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs’ 242-page rejection decision acknowledged that 89 percent of the Little Shell can trace their lineage to the Pembina Band of Chippewa Indians, but stated the Little Shell had failed to show enough "cohesion" during the early 1900s, after many of the Tribe's members had been uprooted and migrated between northern Montana and southern Canada. The Tribe has not had a secure homeland since the late 1860s, when Chief Little Shell and his people were excluded from a federal treaty signed with related Tribes.

As discussed previously on this site, the BIA uses an extremely complex and subjective set of criteria in analyzing petitions for federal recognition. For Little Shell, the BIA decided that members of the Tribe in Montana lived primarily in "already existing, largely multiethnic settlements." According to the BIA, "In none of these multiethnic settlements did the petitioner's ancestors constitute a majority or even a significant percentage of the population." Little Shell’s petition was thus denied based on a perceived lack of social and political cohesion.

For Tribes like Little Shell, the next step in the struggle for recognition is to seek legislative backing in Congress, in the hope that recognition can be obtained through pressure and laws enacted by elected representatives. Hopes for progress in this area were briefly raised by the announcement of President Obama's upcoming Tribal Nations conference in November. Unfortunately, invitations to the event were only sent to a select group of Tribes – those that already possess federal recognition.
 

Duwamish Federal Recognition Hearings Underway

Duwamish Tribal Dancers

Duwamish Tribal leaders and Rep. Jim McDermott will testify before the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources this week, seeking federal recognition for the Tribe. The Duwamish Tribe’s ancestral homeland is located in present-day Seattle, which takes its name from the Tribe’s legendary Chief Si’ahl.

The Duwamish were signatories to the Treaty of Point Elliott in 1855, which guaranteed fishing rights and reservations for all Tribes who were party to the agreement.  However, in 1916 the construction of the ship canal connecting Lake Washington to Puget Sound ultimately forced the Duwamish to leave their traditional territory and move to places like the Muckleshoot and Tulalip reservations.

In the closing hours of President Bill Clinton's administration the Duwamish were granted federal recognition but that decision was reversed by President George Bush's administration. A Bush appointee decided that that the Tribal members no longer exist as a distinct political and social unit, primarily because of what administration officials characterized as a lapse in Tribal government and social cohesion from 1916 to 1925. The Duwamish's approximately 600 members have since sued the U.S. Department of Interior to reverse its ruling and restore federal recognition.

The website for the House Committee on Natural Resources will have a link to video footage of the hearings after their completion.
 

 

The Blood Sport Of Federal Recognition

Currently, a little over 560 Native American Tribes and Alaska Native organizations enjoy official federal recognition by the United States government. Hundreds of other Tribes across the country remain unrecognized, consigned to a political and legal purgatory and facing uncertain futures. The stakes could hardly be higher, as federal recognition brings national “legitimacy” as a Tribal entity, along with land, services, and money. Many Tribes have recognition applications that have been pending in the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) for decades, yet the prospect of a final decision on their fate as a nation remains frustratingly unclear.

In order to attain federal recognition, a Tribe must establish its fulfillment of seven criteria to the satisfaction of the BIA:

(1) The Tribe has been identified as an American Indian entity on a
substantially continuous basis since 1900.
(2) A predominant portion of the Tribe comprises a distinct
community and has existed as a community from historical times until
the present.
(3) The Tribe has maintained political influence or authority over its
members as an autonomous entity from historical times until the
present.
(4) The Tribe must provide a copy of its present governing documents and
membership criteria.
(5) The Tribe’s membership consists of individuals who descend from
a historical Indian tribe or tribes, which combined and functioned as a
single autonomous political entity.
(6) The membership of the Tribe is composed principally of
persons who are not members of any acknowledged North American
Indian Tribe.
(7) Neither the Tribe nor its members are the subject of congressional
legislation that has expressly terminated or forbidden recognition.


Once a Tribe has submitted evidence on these seven criteria, the technical staff within BIA’s Branch of Acknowledgement and Research reviews the submitted documentation and determines when the petition is ready for active consideration. Once the petition enters active consideration, the BAR staff reviews the documented petition and makes recommendations on a proposed finding either for or against recognition. Staff recommendations are subject to review by the Department’s Office of the Solicitor and senior officials within BIA, culminating with the approval of the Assistant Secretary-Indian Affairs.

After a proposed finding is approved by the Assistant Secretary, it is published in the Federal Register and a period of further comment, document submission and response is allowed. The BAR staff reviews comments, documentation, and responses and makes recommendations on a final determination that are subject to the same levels of review as a proposed finding. The process culminates in a final determination by the Assistant Secretary that, depending on the nature of further evidence submitted, may or may not be the same as the proposed finding.

Much of the publicized controversy over recognition decisions stems from events that occur after a Tribe is recognized, such as taking land into trust and off the local tax registers, or the immunity Tribes generally enjoy from local environmental and business regulations. Yet before the matter can even get to that point, the burden of satisfying the seven criteria can be overwhelming. In many instances, the historical policies and actions of the US government were specifically designed to eliminate the very socio-political authority and consistency the Tribe is now required to prove. Furthermore, the ability of the federal government to objectively analyze a Tribe’s petition must always be suspect, as international relations of this type are always colored by the self-interest of the participants.

Interestingly, some of the strongest opposition to the federal recognition of a given Tribe often comes from an unlikely source: other Tribes. A recent article about recognition disputes in the Pacific Northwest details such conflicts and highlights a primary factor: economics. After persevering through grinding poverty for decades, Tribes that are presently realizing positive economic development are understandably keen to protect their gains and future potential growth. Casino gaming is a typical engine that drives such growth, and numerous Tribes have effectively cornered-the-market on gaming in their localities by virtue of being “the only game in town”. The recognition of a new Tribe in the same locality, with its own ability to open a casino, becomes an immediate cause for concern for the existing Tribe’s revenue stream.

On the political front, a typical inter-Tribal argument against recognition is that the aspiring Tribe was at some point in history subsumed within a larger, currently-recognized Tribe. The legal basis for such arguments is often a treaty, usually signed in the 19th Century, wherein the federal government and certain Tribes purported to recognize each other and divide up territory (and the people living therein) for governance. Yet Tribes themselves have long fiercely criticized the legitimacy of many of these agreements, having usually been signed at the conclusion of military campaigns where the overriding priority was simply to end years of horrific human suffering. Parallels can be drawn to the annexation of the Baltic Republics into the Soviet Union, of Balkan states into the former Yugoslavia, and of Tibet into China. In each instance there were treaties or other legal paperwork “legitimizing” these acquisitions of smaller nations by larger states, yet it was obvious to all that these political maneuvers were the direct and exclusive product of the power of the gun.

In recent decades, many nationalist movements around the globe have succeeded in removing the yoke of totalitarianism, and have formed or re-established new nations that more properly reflect the ethnic and cultural heritage of the people. Such movements have been almost universally recognized as legitimate, and they have been celebrated by the Western democracies as the political expression of natural human rights. Are Native Americans any less entitled to pursue their goals of establishing self-identified nations?