Tribal recognition


When President Obama recently announced that the U.S. would finally endorse the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UN DRIP), he was immediately heaped with effusive praise from tribal and human rights groups alike.

There have been unrelenting references to the Crow Nation giving Obama the Indian name, “One Who Helps People throughout the Land”, and during his press conference, Obama boldly stated, “I said that so long as I held this office, never again would Native Americans be forgotten or ignored.”

However, reading between the lines of the White House’s official position paper, it’s clear there’s a subtle duplicity behind the endorsement. Obama seems determined to break his promise and restrict the DRIP’s efficacy by continuing to ignore the rights and sovereignty of hundreds of federally unrecognized tribes throughout the country.

The UN DRIP is a powerful document (though not legally binding) that asserts the rights of the world’s indigenous people to practice their culture, preserve their traditional lands and to maintain self-determination. While Obama endorsed the document (the U.S. is one of the last U.N. member states to do so), he also endorsed the government’s right to apply it only to federally recognized tribes.

“For the United States, the Declaration’s concept of self-determination is consistent with the United States’ existing recognition of, and relationship with, federally recognized tribes . . .” the paper says.

The problem here is that the system of federal tribal acknowledgement is incredibly inefficient and plagued with corruption, politics and an utter lack of transparency. I doubt there are any experts on this issue who would agree the federal recognition process would jive with the U.N.'s idea of self-determination.

So to paraphrase, the Obama administration says the U.S. government will respect the rights of this country’s indigenous people, but the government maintains the ability to decide who’s indigenous.

And it’s been well documented that the government is very bad at making these decisions.

The Government Accountability Office has published reports for years documenting the systemic problems in the BIA’s Office of Federal Acknowledgment and the inherent human rights problems it can create. On average, tribes who apply for recognition, even those with well-documented histories and cultures, have to wait 20 years to receive a final decision from the BIA.

The Northern California tribe I currently live with as an immersion journalist, the Winnemem Wintu, have their own language, a vibrant culture attached to sacred places in their traditional lands and a history that has been documented by numerous anthropologists, historians and writers.

By almost any legal definition of indigenous people, the Winnemem fit. And yet they remain unrecognized, and apparently, according to Obama, unworthy of the DRIP’s protections.

Despite all the evidence that federal recognition can’t and shouldn’t be the end-all, be-all certification of whether a tribe is truly indigenous, Obama deliberately drew a line in the sand, asserting that only recognized tribes deserve the unique rights the DRIP provides.

What’s even more disappointing is that recognized tribes and other advocacy groups have remained silent on the issue.

I suspect some recognized tribes don’t want any more tribes receiving federal funds and, thus, possibly reducing their share of the pot. But other stakeholders probably wanted the U.S. to finally endorse the DRIP and feared engaging the feds on the prickly issue of recognition would hamper that objective.

But now there couldn’t be a better time to reform the federal recognition process. The DRIP has been officially endorsed, so why not now work to ensure that its protections are enjoyed by all of the country’s indigenous people?

The American Indian Law Resource Center has worked tirelessly to encourage the U.S. to endorse the DRIP, and should start advocating on behalf of the unrecognized tribes.  And the recognized tribes would be wise to join with them.

The Winnemem lost their recognition in 1985 due to a bookkeeping error, and the BIA has never explained why. Members of the tribe believe it’s quite possible that the location of their traditional lands, situated in the heart of thirsty California’s ambitious water plans, might have made them a target.

With a system that can be so easily abused, recognized tribes should ask themselves, If their sovereignty suddenly becomes inconvenient to the powers that be, how do they know they won’t suffer the same fate as the Winnemem?

Until the federal recognition process is overhauled, they won’t.

Marc Dadigan is a freelance journalist based in Redding, California. He's currently living with the Winnemem Wintu tribe and writing a book about their spiritually guide salmon restoration project.

Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.