Opinion | Federal Recognition

John Norwood: Cultural groups rushing to claim tribal status

The following is the opinion of the Rev. John Norwood, the Secretary-General of the Alliance of Colonial Era Tribes.

The Alliance of Colonial Era Tribes (ACET) has passed a guiding resolution regarding a growing issue: cultural enthusiast groups that have no continuous history are now claiming to be authentic American Indian tribes. These groups are petitioning for various forms of acknowledgment, including recognition by their state government.

Historically well documented American Indian tribes are only those which meet the generally accepted definition of a tribe being a continuing community of interrelated descendants of a historic American Indian tribe or tribes which has maintained tribal identity in some manner that can be documented to have continued from at least the 19th century or earlier. Among continuing historic American Indian tribes are those which are not currently listed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, but which still meet the generally accepted definition of a tribe, and may also have colonial era treaties and reservations, have maintained a continuous tribal identity and tribal cohesion in connection with their historical tribal areas, have had tribal citizens who attended federal Indian schools, and uphold strict tribal enrollment policies.

While the administrative federal acknowledgment process was initially established as a way to assist historically well documented non-BIA listed tribes in the pursuit of BIA listing, now numerous federal hearings and agency reports have cited how the current administrative process has become hostile toward worthy applicants, overwhelmingly expensive, unreasonably technically difficult, embarrassingly unpredictable, and can take decades to successfully complete. One recent study concluded that as much as seventy-two percent of current BIA listed American Indian tribes could not successfully complete the federal acknowledgment processes today, given the manner in which the acknowledgment criteria is currently being interpreted.

The validity of the recognition of non-BIA listed tribes by their state governments is acknowledged by the United States Congress through federal statutes and regulations extending certain protections, benefits and privileges to state recognized tribes, and provides acknowledgment of their tribal identity and status, thus protecting historically well documented tribes from a form of de facto termination. Individual states have acknowledged tribes in various manners, evolving from some tribes being historically acknowledged through inclusion in actions of their state government, to some now being acknowledged through formal modern administrative recognition processes established by their state government.

It is vital to protect the inherent status and cultural rights of American Indian tribes and to also protect the validity of state acknowledgment by ensuring that non-BIA listed tribes that receive the recognition of their state governments and access to federal protections are, in fact, historically verifiable as tribes and are not merely newly organized non-historic groups. Some non-BIA listed historic tribes have interacted with their states in various documentable ways, sometimes over centuries, and in other cases the history of interaction may be less clear, yet it is important that states have a fair and reasonable process for determining the legitimacy of claims of historical and continuous tribal existence.

All historic tribes, whether or not BIA listed, have a shared interest in ensuring that recognition is not accorded to newly established "groups" that do not have a historic tribal basis. ACET has passed a resolution calling on the state governments with a historic and current relationship with non-BIA listed tribes to continue to affirm and uphold that relationship of acknowledgment; and, in the case where tribes do not have a prior relationship with their state and are seeking new recognition by their state, ACET recommends that the states have a process in place requiring documentation that a tribe seeking state recognition is a continuing community of interrelated descendants of a historic American Indian tribe or tribes which has maintained tribal identity in some manner that can be documented to have continued from at least the 19th century or earlier. This objective review of documentation of the tribe's historic and continuing identity not create the unreasonable evidentiary burden and bureaucratic backlog currently experienced in the federal acknowledgment process.

ACET urges state governments to actively affirm and cooperate with American Indian tribes that meet the aforementioned standards in order to strengthen tribal cohesion, promote self-governance, and to help verify the claims of groups seeking new recognition of tribal status.

The resolution may be found on the ACET website at www.ACET-Online.org.

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