What Makes a Native American Tribe?

Do the Feds define what makes a “tribe?” We get special benefits and rights along with BIA recognition. But that makes you wonder, if it takes the Feds to give us and enforce our “rights,” then do we really have them? Or are they a temporary fiction? Will they last forever?

Christian Science Monitor

“”[The BIA] had a whole team of PhDs and anthropologists who seemed dedicated to undercutting our petition,” says Martha Rice, a Tolowa council member. “For us, that’s a tall mountain to climb.”

Anthropologists and tribal members also argue that the requirement to show “continuous and distinct community” since 1900 is unrealistic given US history. “These people went through massacres, dislocations, and suffered all these horrible atrocities, and then the government demands, ‘Show us your continuous community.’ It’s absurd,” says Les Field, an anthropologist at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.”

Redding, Calif.

On a wet January night in northern California, Caleen Sisk-Franco gathered the Winnemem Wintu tribe for a healing in their prayer house, the sacred fire casting its walls with ocher shadow. Smoke from Ms. Sisk-Franco’s pipe curled past her patient, a melancholy teenage boy from the neighboring Hoopa Valley Reservation.

As the tribe sang their song for lost little ones, Sisk-Franco, sensing the boy was nervous, took an eagle-feather fan from her doctoring chest and undulated it around his body. She then retreated into the shadows.

“There was the presence of your mom, trying to watch over you,” Sisk-Franco said. “She’s not around, but she wants you to know she cares about you.

“Where is your mom?” she asked. His teary gaze focused on the fire. “She died. A year ago.”

Sisk-Franco is the spiritual leader and chief of the Winnemem Wintu, a small traditional native American tribe of 123 people, and she is also a well-known Indian doctor, or shaman. But one of Sisk-Franco’s spiritual doctoring tools is technically illegal. This March, the US Fish and Wildlife Service revoked her right to possess eagle feathers because her tribe isn’t recognized by federal authorities.

For thousands of years, the Win­ne­mem Wintu have practiced their culture among the sentinel pines and glacial waters of the McCloud River watershed, but that history is legally moot because they don’t appear on the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) list of recognized tribes.

So Sisk-Franco is no more eligible for an eagle-feather religious permit than a white Protestant, nor is her tribe eligible for other legal provisions meant to protect Indian cultures.

“We have to break the law in order to practice our religion and to be who we are,” Sisk-Franco says. “They’re basically saying, ‘You don’t know who you are. We know who you are, and you’re not Indian.’ ”

The profiles of some federally recognized American Indian tribes have grown in recent decades as they parlayed their sovereign status to create profitable ventures such as gambling enterprises. But there are many other tribes that – never having had a reservation or simply falling through the cracks of Indian policy – are unrecognized by the United States. Scholars estimate that more than 250,000 of the 5 million who identify themselves as American Indians belong to about 300 unrecognized tribes, making them almost invisible to federal Indian law.

Read the rest


About Vince

I am a Tlingit, born and raised in Tlingit Country, and a proud member of the Tlingit Nation.
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