WASHINGTON – As a proud Chinook Indian, Gary Johnson rejects the claim that his tribe in southwestern Washington state is extinct, even though that’s what the Bureau of Indian Affairs declared more than 12 years ago.
“They couldn’t be more wrong,” said Johnson, a former chairman of the tribe that helped Lewis and Clark navigate the Pacific Northwest in the early 1800s.
Rob Jacobs of North Carolina’s Lumbee Tribe said it was silly that he couldn’t legally wear his eagle feathers because his tribe wasn’t among the 566 federally recognized tribes.
“We have to ask for permission to be Indian,” said Jacobs. “Think about it. It’s so sad.”
While no one bothers to count the tribes that have long gone unrecognized by the U.S. government, experts estimate the number at well over 200.
That might change under new rules proposed by the Obama administration. They would give more tribes a faster track at joining the ranks of the recognized by making it easier to prove their legitimacy.
“This opens the door of opportunity,” said Patty Ferguson-Bohnee, the director of the Indian legal program.
It also opens the door to money. Winning such recognition makes a tribe eligible for more federal benefits and is a prerequisite to apply for the biggest prize of all: the right to run a casino.
Sept. 30 deadline
While the rules have won backing from large tribal groups, they’re generating lots of controversy. The Bureau of Indian Affairs has set a deadline of Sept. 30 for the public to weigh in and will then decide whether to adopt the rules.
Gambling opponents say the rules are too lenient. Some smaller tribes fear they’ll still be denied the recognition they’ve sought for decades.
Under the new rules, tribes would be required to document political influence or authority only since 1934, rather than as early as 1789. And they’d no longer be required to demonstrate that third parties have identified them as tribes since 1900.
The National Congress of American Indians passed a resolution endorsing the new rules “as a matter of long-overdue justice and fairness.”
When the Obama administration published the new rules in May, Kevin Washburn, the head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, called the changes “long overdue.”
Even if they’re approved, the bureau says it’s uncertain how many more tribes might get recognized, how much it might cost taxpayers or whether any of the newly sanctioned tribes would get to open casinos.
“Whether to grant federal recognition and whether a tribe is eligible for Indian gaming are two wholly separate questions,” said Nedra Darling, spokeswoman for the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
She said the new rules would provide uniform standards and that applications would be judged on whether tribes met them. And she said the bureau hadn’t conducted a cost analysis. Opponents say that’s a mistake.
Too slow, too costly
Tribes have long complained that trying to win recognition is too expensive and time-consuming. New York’s Shinnecock Indian Nation said it spent $33 million battling the government for 32 years before winning recognition in 2010.
“Most tribes don’t have those sorts of resources to put together a petition,” said Ferguson-Bohnee, who’s testified before the U.S. Senate on federal recognition issues. “People are turning in 50,000 to 100,000 pages and spending exorbitant amounts of money.”
Ferguson-Bohnee called the new rules a big improvement.
In Washington state, there’s far less enthusiasm among the Chinook Tribe and its backers.
Former Democratic Rep. Brian Baird, who’s now the president of Antioch University Seattle, predicted that neither the Chinooks nor the Duwamish would win recognition under the new rules. He said that made little sense since both are so well-known: The Chinooks helped Lewis and Clark, and the Duwamish’s members included Chief Seattle, for whom the state’s largest city is named.
Baird criticized a provision that would force tribes whose petitions have already been rejected to get permission from third parties that opposed their applications before reapplying. For the Chinooks, that would mean winning permission from the neighboring Quinault tribe, a longtime opponent. Baird said Congress needed to scrap the provision as a way to aid smaller tribes that faced consistent opposition from larger and more powerful ones.
“It’s rare in your life that you have a chance to right a historical wrong and to restore justice,” he said.