What makes a native American tribe?
Small groups of native Americans are still looking for tribal recognition from the federal government.
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Unrecognized tribes like the Winnemem – one of several tribes that traditionally spoke the Wintu language – can't access the billions in federal benefits (as of 2005, the total was $4 billion), such as scholarships, Indian Health Services, housing grants, and other funding available to the 565 recognized tribes. Recognized tribes can also open casinos in some states and can more easily use federal laws to protect their religious ceremonies and land.Skip to next paragraph
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Many unrecognized tribes are no less indigenous than recognized ones: They practice living cultures, speak native languages, and some were previously acknowledged in some way by the US. The Winnemem, for instance, signed an unratified 1851 treaty and – in the 1941 federal act that created the 602-foot Shasta Dam – were identified as the tribe to be removed from the reservoir area.
These forms of acknowledgment alone don't constitute official recognition, which can only come from the BIA's Office of Federal Acknowledgment.
The OFA was created in 1978, with input from more than 300 tribal representatives, to standardize the recognition process and remedy a century of policies designed to assimilate or terminate tribes. That history complicates the OFA's task: How to fairly assess tribal identity when the US spent decades trying to undermine it?
How to define 'tribe'
To make these decisions, the OFA has four teams of anthropologists, genealogists, and historians who review tribal petitions – some of which are 100,000 pages long – and provide technical advice on how to complete those petitions. They make site visits, conduct interviews with tribal members, and spend an average of 25 months (including time for appeal) assessing a completed petition before making a decision, all in an effort to ensure that a limited pot of benefits is distributed fairly to historical tribes, says Lee Fleming, director of the OFA.
"The regulations allow for us to review any claim by any group from anywhere in the United States," Mr. Fleming says. "These claims must be supported by evidence to establish [the tribe] existed from historical times to the present and that the group does descend from Indian tribes."
While the Winnemem refuse to petition for recognition because they believe they should have been on the original list, Fleming says the process is necessary because of "instances where groups who have no Indian ancestry have forged documents and other records."
Some unrecognized tribes say the process has created a kind of caste system.
"We know our language and our history," says Daniel Romero Castro, general council chairman of the unrecognized Lipan Apache of Texas. "But we still fear the government is going to decimate us because they don't acknowledge our rights."
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