Proposed Changes To Tribal Recognition Hold Both Promise And Pitfalls

Jul 1, 2014

The U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs wants to rewrite the rules that determine how a tribe becomes officially recognized in the eyes of the feds. The proposal raises hopes for status and federal benefits among some unrecognized tribes in the West.

The bid to streamline and simplify the process of tribal recognition encourages leaders of native groups and bands currently frozen out of federal programs. But they have to contend with existing tribes who fear having to share territory, resources or casino customers.

That's where the acting chairman of the Chinook tribal council sees a potential pitfall. Sam Robinson points to part of the proposal that would allow previously denied tribes like his to repetition for recognition only with consent of affected third parties.

"To appease another tribe would be very difficult for many. On top of that, why should one tribe be able to tell you whether you are Indian or not?" Robinson said.

Robinson's ancestors welcomed Lewis and Clark to the mouth of the Columbia River and later signed a treaty, which was not ratified by Congress. Other tribal groups that might get another shot at official status include the Snohomish and the Duwamish in western Washington, and several small bands near the Oregon-California border.

The Chinook Indian Nation and the Duwamish tribe were accorded federal recognition in 2001 in the last days of the Clinton Administration. But it didn't last very long. The subsequent Bush Administration repealed the recognitions based on perceived irregularities in the review process. 

The BIA is holding public hearings and tribal consultations around the country this month, including sessions in Portland on July 15.

There are currently 566 federally-recognized tribes in the U.S.