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What makes a native American tribe?

Small groups of native Americans are still looking for tribal recognition from the federal government.

By Marc DadiganCorrespondent / August 22, 2011

During the 2010 Coming of Age Ceremony, the Winnemem dancers performed the 'Houp Chonas'(War Dance), a spiritual protest against the Shasta Dam raise in northern California.

Marc Dadigan

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Redding, Calif.

On a wet January night in northern California, Caleen Sisk-Franco gathered the Winnemem Wintu tribe for a healing in their prayer house, the sacred fire casting its walls with ocher shadow. Smoke from Ms. Sisk-Franco's pipe curled past her patient, a melancholy teenage boy from the neighboring Hoopa Valley Reservation.

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As the tribe sang their song for lost little ones, Sisk-Franco, sensing the boy was nervous, took an eagle-feather fan from her doctoring chest and undulated it around his body. She then retreated into the shadows.

"There was the presence of your mom, trying to watch over you," Sisk-Franco said. "She's not around, but she wants you to know she cares about you.

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"Where is your mom?" she asked. His teary gaze focused on the fire. "She died. A year ago."

Sisk-Franco is the spiritual leader and chief of the Winnemem Wintu, a small traditional native American tribe of 123 people, and she is also a well-known Indian doctor, or shaman. But one of Sisk-Franco's spiritual doctoring tools is technically illegal. This March, the US Fish and Wildlife Service revoked her right to possess eagle feathers because her tribe isn't recognized by federal authorities.

For thousands of years, the Win­ne­mem Wintu have practiced their culture among the sentinel pines and glacial waters of the McCloud River watershed, but that history is legally moot because they don't appear on the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) list of recognized tribes.

So Sisk-Franco is no more eligible for an eagle-feather religious permit than a white Protestant, nor is her tribe eligible for other legal provisions meant to protect Indian cultures.

"We have to break the law in order to practice our religion and to be who we are," Sisk-Franco says. "They're basically saying, 'You don't know who you are. We know who you are, and you're not Indian.' "

The profiles of some federally recognized American Indian tribes have grown in recent decades as they parlayed their sovereign status to create profitable ventures such as gambling enterprises. But there are many other tribes that – never having had a reservation or simply falling through the cracks of Indian policy – are unrecognized by the United States. Scholars estimate that more than 250,000 of the 5 million who identify themselves as American Indians belong to about 300 unrecognized tribes, making them almost invisible to federal Indian law.

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