Tribe members from Missouri were among other tribes to call for change to the federal recognition process.
They were in Mashpee Tuesday, July 29, attending a hearing hosted by the Department of the Interior at the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe’s community center.
It was opened by Mashpee Chief Vernon (Silent Drum) Lopez and tribal chairman Cedric Cromwell, who expressed both appreciation for Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Kevin K. Washburn as a “champion” of reform efforts and frustration over the flawed nature of the process.
“The Mashpee experience with the process proves that the process is broken and needs reform,” he said, adding that the tribe was officially recognized in 2007. Mashpee is one of only 17 tribes that have been recognized since the process was established 35 years ago. “The tribe submitted a petition to the department in 1977, and, yes, it took the department 30 years to process.”
Like Mr. Cromwell, many have criticized that the process is “broken,” Mr. Washburn said, acknowledging complaints that recognition is burdensome, expensive, unpredictable, and takes too long. In response, a DOI working group released a discussion draft last June to improve transparency, timeliness, efficiency, flexibility, and integrity, and has since reviewed more than 350 comments on the draft and made revisions.
The proposed rules would eliminate a previously required letter of intent and expedite some findings, as well as clarify and revise the extensive required evidence of tribes’ legitimacy. They also attempt to clarify previous federal acknowledgment and the burden of proof and would allow, for the first time, repetitioning under certain circumstances.
During a public comment period, most tribe members said that they were grateful for the opportunity for change, but also identified issues that the proposal failed to address, voicing their frustration with regulations that often hinder rather than help natives achieve recognition.
Chief Ken Adams of the Upper Mattaponi Indian Tribe in Virginia requested that the department expedite the issuance of positive findings for tribes.
“If that’s possible, then that’s a great thing to make a positive expedited ruling, especially for those who have been in the process for an extended period of time, have gone through multiple years before Congress, and had been approved by the Indian Affairs Committee and approved by the House of Representatives, but yet still fail to get positive rulings,” he said.
Mr. Washburn responded that if the department receives a proposed positive finding with no negative comments, that finding is immediately finalized. However, it is typically easier to expedite a negative finding.
“If you can’t show that you’re a historic Indian tribe, then you’re not going to be able to get recognition,” he said. “But a tribe does still have to meet all the criteria and it still needs to be a very rigorous process.”
Chickahominy Chief Stephen R. Adkins of Virginia said he, too, was tired of waiting for recognition for his tribe.
“I think you’re very astute in your observation that the current process is broken,” he said. Mr. Adkins, 68, has been working to achieve recognition for his tribe since the early 1990s, and said that he hopes to see recognition for his people before he dies. “I hope that these regulations speed up the process.”
Another speaker, representing the Northern Cherokee Nation, raised concerns with the continued third party involvement in the recognition process. Since the regulations’ beginnings, this participation has frequently “turned out badly” for the petitioner, she said.
“This third party involvement was biased, arbitrary, discriminatory, self-serving, unfair, and for the most part, has continued this way to the present... If tribes’ bid for recognition is based on historical data, then any failures should be based on the same criteria, and not arbitrary statements for self-serving third parties,” she said as attendees hooted and applauded their approval, one audience member uttering a tearful, “You go, sister.”
But Mr. Washburn defended the necessity of the third party involvement as part of a rigorous and open process, describing the consideration of input from all parties as “the American way.”
“If they’ve got evidence to provide, we will determine whether it is good evidence or whether it’s not substantive, but we encourage people to provide evidence in any of our processes.”
The public hearing was the last of several across the nation, but Mr. Washburn said the department will hold teleconferences for the remainder of tribal consultations on the proposed rulings.