Can Tribes be Unrecognized?

The Fourth of July reminded me of recent call from a reporter who asked the most interesting question: “Can tribes be unrecognized?” He said, “I’m assuming they cannot be.” It was a loaded question with many answers.

  1. First, the question itself is counter-intuitive. How can tribes be “unrecognized” as existing when they were here in North America before anyone else? How can they be “unrecognized” by the very people who discovered them in North America centuries later? This has always been mind boggling to me.
  2. Can tribes be unrecognizedNext, many tribes are unrecognized by the federal government. Some tribes such as the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians were federally recognized, only to have this status taken away. Some tribes such as the Menominee lost their federal recognition but regained it. Many tribes apply for federal recognition, but the process is inconsistent and can take decades. It took the Shinnecock Indian Nation 32 years for approval.
  3. Today, 567 federally recognized tribes exist in the US. However, as many as 460 tribes are unrecognized by the US government. Among other things, this means the members of the 460 must still pay federal income tax and they have the right to vote, but they are ineligible for critical federal benefits such as Medicare, and their tribe cannot conduct Indian gaming.
  4. Tribes that are unrecognized by the US traditionally have not received a reservation land base. Even though reservation lands are not owned by tribes but rather held “in trust” for tribes by the federal government and allocated for tribal use, the tribes that are “unrecognized” are not allocated a land base where their people can live in unity. A land base is also crucial for economic success. Operating tribal administrations and social programs, and developing income-generating operations, all first depend upon available land. Some tribes, such as the Ponca Tribe in Nebraska, have acquired tracts of land over the decades to conduct tribal operations and ensure a place where their people can exist together.
  5. Finally, tribes that are federally unrecognized may be recognized by their state government. Yet, even with state recognition, they face the same block to federal benefits and land.

For hundreds of years, unrecognized tribes have held onto a distinct history and cultural identity, despite the challenges mentioned. Yet, it is also true that some tribal members struggle with a sense of identity and belonging, both in unrecognized and recognized tribes. Imagine that your ancestors were Indian, and you were born Indian, but you are later told by an outsider that you are not Indian. And how do you form the strong sense of identity that is so crucial to long-term health, emotional wellness, and self-sufficiency? Imagine too the breakdown of culture and traditions that might occur if your people were spread about and not existing together on shared land. Recognition is not required for tribal unity, but it certainly can help.

I would ask each of you to think about this. Then learn more about how you can help the “unrecognized” tribes in your state achieve state and federal recognition. After all, they were here first and paved the way for everyone else.

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