Let’s talk about recognition.

Do you know what recognition is? In terms of federal policies and laws concerning Native Americans, recognition means the government has decided that a particular group is a “real” tribe and is entitled to the rights, privileges, and limited sovereignty the government grants such groups.

Now, recognition is established various ways. Either the government recognized you as a tribe back in the day – on the Dawes Rolls, or under IRA, etc. – or recognition was established at a later date. If the latter, the tribe had to apply for recognition. The recognition process is complicated and lengthy – it can take decades for a recognition case to be settled. The government requires proof that a tribe has been a united entity since the time of contact. This type of proof is not always easy to come by.

In California, recognition is made more complicated by the fact that most tribes never had an “official” relationship with the federal government. The treaties negotiated in 1851-1852 that should have established that relationship, and which most California tribes signed, were never ratified by the Senate. Anthropologists and government officials later deemed many tribes to be “extinct.”*

Recognition is highly prized. It allows a tribe a certain amount of sovereignty and self-government, and it allows tribes to place land into communal trust. Recognition is also a rare commodity. More tribes lost their cases than win. But the ones who win get big headlines, because what recognition also brings is the power to open a casino.

Indian gaming is an intensely controversial topic. It brings money to communities that struggled with poverty for decades, if not centuries. It also brings crime and congestion to formerly quiet rural areas. Personally, I’m in favor of it, but I do realize that it’s a complicated issue.

Gaming has brought a new, politically fraught dimension to the recognition process. For instance, in Northern California, the Mishewal Wappo tribe is trying to gain recognition. Several of the cities that surround their traditional homelands have filed suit to be present during the determination. Personally, this drives me insane. Surely they have a right to be concerned about what happens in their backyard, but for the most part, that doesn’t matter. Recognition is a federal process, and it’s not about whether the nearby town had concerns about a casino. It’s about whether the tribe can prove their case. It’s a matter for the tribe and the BIA. Municipal concerns are one thing, and I sympathize, but they shouldn’t enter into this equation. The cities really have no right to be a part of these discussions.

Like I said, I sympathize with their concerns. But I’m also totally enraged at the idea that this process, which is already complex and involved, is being further bogged down with problems that have no direct bearing on the issue at hand.

*”Extinct” tribes were those that no one could find any living members of, which sounds logical on the surface. Except that by the time academics and officials were making these determinations, California Indians had been exploited, oppressed, and enslaved for the better part of fifty years. A Salinan guy I know once told me a story about his grandfather, an old Indian tracker who lived in the Santa Lucia Mountains. One day a government official came into the local trading post and announced he was looking for Indians, to count for the census. No one responded, and so he moved on. The room, my acquaintance said, was full of Indians, but none so stupid as to identify themselves to a government official.

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