Nor are the landless Little Shell Chippewa Indians who once inhabited Canada, Montana and North and South Dakota. Or the Chinook Indians of Washington state, who in the 1800s helped explorers Lewis and Clark navigate the Pacific Northwest.
Seattle, Washington, is named after Chief Seattle of the Duwamish Indians. But that tribe also is not federally recognized.
Conversely, the Pamunkey Indians of Virginia were recognized by the U.S. Department of the Interior just last July, 400 years after encountering English settlers at Jamestown. Pocahontas was a member of the tribe.
And the Mashpee Wampanoag of Massachusetts, whose ancestors greeted the Pilgrims and partook in what many believe was the first Thanksgiving feast, were finally recognized in 2007.
The complex legal status of indigenous Americans—their ability to maintain their sovereignty and traditions and reacquire and govern ancestral lands lost through European settlement—has long been fraught with federal bureaucratic peril.
It’s not unusual for Indian groups to struggle for decades, spending millions of dollars in legal fees and accumulating thousands of pages of historical and genealogical records, before achieving the recognition necessary to establish governments and place land in federal trust.
The Shinnecock Nation of New York told McClatchy News Service it spent $33 million over 32 years before getting federal recognition in 2010.
The Department of the Interior, at long last, is working to fix what Indian law scholars have long regarded as a “broken” system of federal acknowledgement.
But, not unexpectedly, the effort has been commandeered by Indian casino gambling.
“Indian gaming, unfortunately, is the 800-pound gorilla in every room, in every discussion, on every Indian policy, including recognition. Mostly recognition,” says Washington, D.C. attorney Arlinda Locklear.
Long-awaited reforms to Interior’s Section 83 federal acknowledgement process went into effect July 31. But recalcitrant Congress members may withhold funding the streamlined process, and tribes and anti-gambling groups have threatened legal action to thwart certain revisions.
The new guidelines for Interior’s Office of Federal Acknowledgement (OFA)—established in 1978 to fix the recognition process—underwent thorough scrutiny after a rule-making draft released in May 2014 elicited a flurry of criticism from tribes and anti-gambling proponents.
Although the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) and other Indian groups applauded the reforms, several tribes challenged the working draft, claiming the guidelines were too lenient and diminished their legal standing as sovereign governments.
Others feared increasing the number of federally recognized tribes would cut into already meager Interior appropriations for Indian programs.
But a major factor in the debate was the notion the reforms would markedly increase both the number of Indian tribes and, consequently, Indian casinos, burgeoning an already tight $28.5 billion market of some 440 gambling facilities in 28 states.