By Erin Lale-
Of the 5 million people who identify themselves as Native American, it’s estimated that 250,000 belong to a tribe that does not have federal recognition. That figure is dwarfed by the inestimable number of people who identify as ethnically Native or part Native but are not officially enrolled in any tribe, recognized or not.
The issue of federally unrecognized tribes was brought to the public’s attention this year when the Winnemem Wintu tribe in California sent out an appeal on the internet for volunteers to help them protect their young women’s coming of age ceremony by blocking part of the McCloud River so that boaters could not harass the maidens as they had done in prior years. The Winnemem had previously been a federally recognized tribe but the U.S. government had arbitrarily withdrawn their recognition.
The Winnemem are among the 105 tribes in California not recognized by the federal government. The Winnemem tribe had been removed from their land during the building of a dam. Most of their sacred places had been permanently flooded, and the ones that are left are on land the federal government claims to own. The Winnemem organized volunteers to help them illegally occupy their own sacred space at the site of their former village to perform the ceremony.
The history of U.S. federal government interaction with Native American tribes is nothing short of a history of genocide. It was the publicly stated, official policy of the U.S. government of an earlier era to eradicate the Indian. Native Americans were pushed off their lands, herded onto Reservations, scattered by groups and individuals fleeing the roundups, de-Indianized by taking Native children and putting them in boarding schools where they were forbidden to speak their language, wear their Native clothes, or practice their own religion.
They were separated by official policies of relocation off the Reservations, forced underground by state policies forbidding land ownership by Indians, and trapped in dependency on the very federal government which had taken away their traditional livelihood.
The U.S. Government’s largesse to tribes depends on proofs on paper such as treaties, but not all tribes concluded treaties. Not all tribes surrendered. Unsurrendered tribes have no official status. Even those tribes that did sign treaties can be unrecognized. To see the scale of this issue, consider that there are only two federally recognized bands of the Cherokee, the Western Band in Oklahoma, descendents of those who were forced onto the Trail of Tears and eventually arrived where the federal government wanted them to be, and the Eastern Band in North Carolina, descendents of those who came back to their original lands after a rich white American bought it for them and gave it back. But there were many people who had left the area long before the Trail of Tears and had gone to a variety of other places which the federal government had previously offered to them; the Trail of Tears was the last removal of the Cherokees, not the first.
There were also people who escaped along the way and made their way elsewhere. There are seven federally unrecognized tribes of the
Cherokee just in Alabama, and many more elsewhere. That only counts those who stayed together in tribal groups and petitioned for federal recognition in the 20th or 21st Centuries. The vast majority of descendents of the Cherokees in America today are descendents of those who melted into the general population.
These individuals may be genetically no different from tribal members, since intermarriage was common in the 17th and 18th Centuries before the removals. These individuals may even have preserved aspects of Cherokee culture and religion—as my father passed down Cherokee spiritual wisdom to me as a child—in their isolation in family units away from organized proselytizing that resulted in tribes embracing Christianity. Such individuals may identify themselves as Native or part Native when asked their ethnicity on official forms, but the question that brings privileges in employment and so on is “Are you an enrolled member of a federally recognized tribe?” That is a question that individuals like myself have to answer “no” to.
Like the U.S. Government’s entitlements to tribes, the government’s largesse to individuals also depends on proofs on paper, such as birth certificates, ignoring the basic fact that Natives living traditionally would not have had a doctor as a birth attendant. Tribal rolls from the 1800s and before list the ancestors of many people living today, but connecting a living person by an assailable paper trail to such an ancestor is not merely a matter of looking up tribal rolls on the internet, and in any case it is up to the tribes themselves to decide who is a member.
There is a popular perception in America that if one simply employs a good enough genealogist one can become an enrolled member of the tribe of one’s ancestors, bringing with it all the modern-day privileges in employment, education, federal business loans, etc. that are given to other minorities based solely on self-identification but are denied to the second class Native Americans who are merely ethnically minorities and not officially enrolled in a tribe. This perception is false. A tribe is legally a sovereign nation. Having one’s ancestry traced does not guarantee enrollment in a tribe any more than it guarantees citizenship in a foreign nation.
I am among those who identify as part Native but am not officially enrolled in a federally recognized tribe. I identified as Native during the time period when there was no official category for people of mixed race or “more than one”, which is the category I began claiming as soon as it became available. In the U.S., mixed is an official census category but it is not a recognized tribal identity as it is in Canada. In Canada, the tribe of the Metis, meaning people of mixed white and Native ancestry, is recognized by Canada’s government.
For those like me who are old enough to remember being forced to choose between one’s parents, the mixed category came as a great relief. Some ethnicities fought against the mixed category or against being able to claim more than one ethnic or racial category on the census and other official documents, because they feared that would result in being counted as a smaller percentage of the population, and thus less important.
However, Native American tribes in general have historically struggled to exclude as many people as possible because the federal government grants money and privileges to each tribe as a whole and more tribal members would mean less of the pie for each member. Thus, U.S. government policy towards tribes, ostensibly meant to preserve tribal sovereignty, has resulted in tribes naturally tending to become more exclusive over time, even to the point that recenlty the Western Band of the Cherokee kicked out a group of previous members because their ancestors had been slaves.
To further complicate matters, there are tribes that are recognized by certain States but not by the federal government. Both tribes and individuals not recognized by the federal government are recognized by some private organizations.
The word that would best describe a person like me who is ethnically part Native but not an enrolled member of a federally recognized tribe would be “undocumented,” which has unfortunately been hijacked to describe illegal immigrants, most of whom actually do have identity documents that prove who they are and what their citizenship is but simply don’t want to produce them because it would prove they don’t have permission to be here. There is no consensus on what to call us, but second-class Native American would also be an accurate description.
Consider some of my personal experiences. I am absolutely certain that I have been discriminated against in employment due to being Native and also due to being a woman. I know that I have lost jobs, lost promotions, and been paid less because of those two reasons. However, on the one occasion in which it would have been an advantage—when I applied for a job offered through a local tribe which
gave preference to enrolled members of federally recognized tribes—it was not an advantage I could access.
When I started a business, I applied for various types of loans, including one offered by the federal government to minorities. Had I been Black, Asian, or Hispanic, I would have qualified for it simply by stating that I am one of those. However, the federal worker informed me that Indians—that’s what the official term still was back then—could only qualify for the loan as a group, not as individuals. That left me wondering how many Indians it took to equal one Black person, and that was no joke to me.
When I went to college, I could not get scholarships for Native Americans, although I did receive academic scholarships open to people of any race. But UC-Santa Cruz assigned me to Oakes College, whose theme was multiculturalism, based on my being Native. It was not one of the colleges I had requested and was not one that held any courses in my major. Oakes turned out to be a good fit for me because it had kitchens and I loved to cook, so it turned out well, but that’s another example of how my life was officially determined based on race but didn’t come with the money everyone else was getting, based on race.
Enrolled Natives and people of other races are living in a world of affirmative action while people like me still live in 1950, only people in the wider society assume that I receive money and privileges that I don’t.
The existence of hiring and academic preferences makes people assume that I did not really earn my education or jobs. I find myself in a struggle to be taken as seriously as someone else with the same academic and professional background who looks different than me; the internet came to my rescue in that regard, providing me with opportunities to earn money in a venue where what I look like is a bunch of words on a screen.
Since I live in the cosmopolitan culture of the Las Vegas valley where racial and ethnic differences aren’t as important as they are in some other places, it may come as a surprise to some of my friends that I believe I have faced discrimination, but yes, it does happen here. Sometimes it’s no more than an annoyance, like when I go into a store and the shopkeeper attempts to speak to me in Spanish, assuming by my looks that I don’t speak English.
That mere annoyance turns into fear when I travel in Arizona, though, which is actively trying to keep out people they believe are Spanish speakers. But it’s much more than merely annoying when I get paid less for the same job, which has happened to me in the past (not, thank goodness, in my current job.)
It is perhaps ironic that one of the most welcoming groups of people I’ve ever encountered are those who practice Asatru, a religion indigenous to those of my ancestors who came here from Europe.
When I was young, I explored both Native and European spirituality. The tribe to which I would have belonged had I been able to gain acceptance was proudly Christian, and wanted nothing to do with the ways my father had taught me. They also wanted nothing to do with me, a person who came seeking ceremonies and dances and the names of the land spirits and a renewed connection to my father, who had recently died; and I was shunned as if I had come with my hand out asking for money, because that was how the federal government had taught them to perceive the diaspora of the tribe.
I continue to practice what my father taught me, and have discovered further spirituality within myself that feels Native in origin. However, I felt a need to belong to a tribal community and a need to connect with the Earth through community ritual, and it was Asatruars who welcomed me and provided that for me. I became a recognized spiritual leader in Asatru and even published a book on it. There are many people of Native and part Native ancestry in Asatru and in other pagan and heathen groups. I would guess a good third of the Asatruars in my local area are part Native.
The spiritual call of the Earth is strong and will not be denied, but often comes to us through a system other than the ancient Native one. Recently, a local Native posted on a Native internet forum asking for someone who could perform a blessing; there was one response, from a Native who was a priest in Lucuma. I added my response as a priestess of Asatru. No one responded who could perform a Native American ceremony. So culture changes, the outward forms different but the essence remaining. This too is part of the experience of descendents of Native tribes who are no longer living in recognized tribal groups.
The ultimate question of any individual is surely “Who am I?” The very same U.S. federal government that did its best to destroy Indian people and Indian culture is now the legal arbiter of the identity of the descendents of the people it did not quite succeed in exterminating.
This unfairness is now even enshrined in international treaty, as President Obama endorsed the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People, but only included federally recognized tribes. Tribes that do have federal recognition, of course, can continue to treaty with the federal government nation to nation, but the federal government also supplies a great many things directly to individuals, bypassing the tribes, simply for being minorities—unless they are second class Natives.
Isn’t it time for the federal government to treat everyone the same, regardless of race or ethnicity?