A guest post by Jefe:
American Indians seek legal recognition for many reasons, usually related to sovereignty.
Tribal sovereignty refers to tribes’ right to govern themselves, define their own membership, manage tribal property, and regulate tribal affairs. It further recognizes the existence of a government-to-government relationship between such tribes and other governments, be they tribal, foreign, state or federal.
Even before the arrival of Europeans, native peoples interacted with each other as sovereign nations. This continued after European arrival as evidenced by the numerous treaties they made with foreign governments and later the US. Although governments often did not honour those treaties, the legal precedent of making treaties demonstrated that tribes were recognized as sovereign entities, a notion still present today.
A major issue facing American Indians is whether they exist in the first place. After centuries of genocide, removal from their homelands, race mixing and adaptation to Jim Crow, official records of Indian tribes often disappeared. The proliferation of “fake Indians” complicates this further.
The federal government has even terminated legal recognition of tribes previously recognized.
Legal recognition falls into four categories.
1. Intertribal recognition
Before European contact, tribes often made agreements or alliances with other tribes. They still do that that today. They also interact through various political, educational, economic and tribal organizations, such as the National Congress of American Indians.
2. International recognition
Tribes historically made treaties as sovereign entities with foreign nations and continue to interact with foreign governments today. They also participate as sovereign entities with international organizations (e.g., Organization of American States).
3. State Recognition
Many tribes are legally recognized by individual states, a carryover from colonial times. Today, there are 62 state recognized tribes.
State recognition is often a stepping stone towards meeting the requirements for federal recognition.
4. Federal Recognition
Until the 1970s, the US government tended to use blood quantum or racial criteria to determine tribal status. Since then, this has shifted to a more political definition. Obama relaxed the rules on June 29th 2015.
Federal Recognition not only means recognition of sovereignty, but also of the government’s trust responsibility to the tribe, conferring certain economic, health care, education, housing, agricultural and cultural benefits.
To be federally recognized, the Bureau of Indian Affairs has specified that a group must meet the following:
- It must comprise a distinct community and have existed as a community from historical times;
- it must have political influence over its members;
- it must have membership criteria; and
- it must have membership that consists of individuals who descend from a historical Indian tribe and who are not enrolled in any other tribe. The existence of persistent political relationship as an aspect of tribal relations is also emphasized.
Today, there are 567 federally recognized tribes. The newest one in July 2015 was the Pamunkey tribe of Virginia, the tribe of Pocahontas.
Note that not all tribe members necessarily identify as American Indian by race. Cherokee Freedmen and Black Seminoles, for example, may identify as black.
Some tribes require that both parents be members of a tribe before admitting that individual. An individual with parents from different tribes could be fully of American Indian descent yet ineligible for tribal affiliation.