30 Years and $33 Million

By John Kane

January 21, 2014

It’s not a prison sentence. It just feels like one. And I’m sure it feels the same to many others. It’s the cost for gaining “recognition” by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs. And $33 million is what it cost the Shinnecock people. However, as exorbitant — and unbelievable–as this sounds they are actually the lucky ones. Unlike most that file a petition for federal acknowledgement, these guys actually got something out of it. In my opinion, it wasn’t much but at least it was something.

After what is almost a lifetime for most Native people, the Shinnecock — who trace their origins back thousands of years to Long Island, New York — officially got recognized as “a tribe, band or nation of Indians under federal jurisdiction.” Doesn’t sound much like sovereignty when you hear the BIA’s definition, does it? And since this new federal recognition only recognizes them as having existed since 1934, the fed’s position is that they can’t add to their land base.

This was all explained quite thoroughly at a conference hosted by Arizona State University’s Indian Law Clinic on January 16 and 17. The conference, which was titled “Who Decides You’re Real? Fixing the Federal Recognition Process,” posed one question, identified a broken system and made some recommendations to fix it. But to me, it left many questions not only unasked but also clearly unanswered.

I was invited to speak at this event. In fact, I was on the first panel and was given the enviable position of being the last panelist to speak during a presentation titled “Inherent Sovereignty.” For me the subject is clear but in the context of a conference on gaining recognition as a tribe, band or nation of Indian subordinate to the laws and customs of the United States, the unasked and unanswered question is — how can these two coexist? Again, for me it is simple. They can’t!

You can check out my comments from the video of the conference at: http://bit.ly/19JRvkC.

Here are a few of my comments that brought home some of my main points:

“Inherent sovereignty is a unique concept. Throughout the world, especially in the dominant European world, sovereignty was the biggest lie ever told. It was where “God” bestowed ruling authority upon a certain family — a crown. Biggest lie ever told.”

“OUR sovereignty — our right to life and our freedom — is a product of Creation. When we do an opening [Ohenton Karihwatehkwen] in my homeland, in the territory of Haudenosaunee, we do a whole acknowledgement about relationships. We start by acknowledging the people, everybody who is here. We acknowledge the ground to the stars. We talk about relationships. The problem with the federal recognition process is it’s all about ONE relationship between a specific Native people and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.”

“I’m not recognized by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. I’m not a tribe, band or nation of Indians subordinate to the laws or customs of the U.S. There is no Mohawk Nation recognized by the BIA. There is the St. Regis Tribe. And they actually threw the word Mohawk in there not long ago, so they’re the St. Regis Tribe of Mohawks. But we’ve seen this happen to all of us. Now, it’s the Oneida Tribe of Wisconsin, the Oneida Indian Nation of New York, the Seneca Nation of Indians, and the Tonawanda Band of Senecas. Somewhere along the line somebody drew a border right through Kanienkehaka territory. Part of this border is the St. Lawrence River but most of my people live on either side of this imaginary line. So the observation about the non-federally recognized people asserting more sovereignty than perhaps the federally recognized ones?  I think we qualify for that because we don’t let that stop us.  You will never see us apply. You will never see the Kanienkehaka submit a petition for federal recognition.”

“Now I understand the value of that [federal recognition]. And let’s face it. The 800-pound gorilla in the room is gaming – and federal funding. But we need to do more for each other. What’s missing in the declaration that will be presented later and signed [at this meeting] is trade and commerce among each other. We need to have THESE kinds of relationships with one another. THAT is the definition of sovereignty, of sustainability, and not what federal funding we can get or how many casinos we can operate. Now I’m not condemning gaming but let’s be clear — gaming is not possible because of IGRA. And it’s not possible because of Cabazon. It is possible because of sovereignty. All Cabazon did was to recognize what we already knew. Of course it paved the way for non-Native people to become our vendors and opened the door for state governments to get into our businesses. That’s what IGRA did. But it also opened the floodgates to a whole lot of people anxious to get a casino. Federal recognition is the pathway for that.”

“We need to start recognizing each other. When I talk about our Ohenton Karihwatehkwen — that opening we do – we talk about relationships. But if we’re not talking about these relationships, and if all we’re talking about is a petition that ends up on the desk of someone at the BIA, we’d better start thinking about decolonizing our minds.”

After I finished, I received a standing ovation from the several hundred in the audience. The question-and-answer session that followed allowed me to make several other points that I simply didn’t have time to address in my presentation.

One of those questions is worth mentioning here. I was asked for my opinion why a Kanienkehaka would not pursue federal recognition.

Not skipping a beat, this is what I said:

“Distinction is [at the heart of] the issue. The problem with the federal recognition process and what is recognized is that it changes the dynamics of a people, because once it is granted there seems to be this move toward more assimilation. There seems to be [the mindset of], “Let’s build something that looks and feels like the state or federal government,” whether it’s the regulatory systems [or something else]. It’s the issue of distinction and autonomy. Sovereignty doesn’t mean that we DON’T have a relationship with the federal government. If someone receives federal funds, and then someone says, “Oh, you’re not sovereign because you receive federal funds,” then what does that say about, for example, Israel? What does that say about any other nation that the federal government throw a ton of money at? In the Mohawk language, the word we use for “treaty” is “we give up our land for peace.” Well, we didn’t just give it up for peace. There were some obligations made then. So when I sit here and hear commentary from a Justice Marshall that says we’re “wards of the state,” or that we’re “domestic dependent nations,” that doesn’t mean that we’re not sovereign. We are not wards of the state. It is not charity that comes into our territory. That’s obligation. That’s debt. We are creditors. But this federal recognition process and what happens when the federal government says, “now we recognize you as a tribe, band or nation of Indians subordinate to OUR laws, that’s the biggest obstacle that I have toward it [federal recognition].”

I left many in Phoenix with plenty to think about as they traveled home to their territories. The reality is these issues need to be at the front of our minds here at home every day. Even as the officials from the U.S. and Canada blow smoke up our backsides about “tribal sovereignty,” it is a lie. Their view of who we are is not our view and they cannot define us or claim us as their own.

We are Ohnkwe Ohnwe — Real, Original, Human Beings. Forever.

John Karhiio Kane, Mohawk, a national expert commentator on Native American issues, hosts “Let’s Talk Native…with John Kane,” ESPN Sports Radio WWKB-AM 1520 in Buffalo, Sundays, 9-11 p.m. Eastern Time. He is a frequent guest on WGRZ-TV’s (NBC/Buffalo) “2 Sides” and “The Capitol Pressroom with Susan Arbetter” in Albany. John’s “Native Pride” blog can be found at letstalknativepride.blogspot.com. He also has a very active “Let’s Talk Native…with John Kane” group page on Facebook.

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