Nestled on the outskirts of Seattle in the middle of an industrial center, along an unimpressive stretch of road, sits a cedar longhouse. If you didn’t know about it and if you don’t notice the panels of wood that peek through the trees, you may not even see it. It’s out of place among the yards of metal and lumber, but behind a set of double doors, a culture relegated to the “unidentifiable” thrives.
Rumbling inside this simple structure, traditions persist in defiance of a tumultuous history. Feet patter against wooden floors as the sounds of drums and throaty voices ricochet off the walls of the large, windowless ceremonial hall. Some afternoons, the smell of cooking oil and dough comes from a nearby kitchen, laughter and rowdy conversation flooding in along with it.
Leading into a main room, black and white photographs hang on white walls and hand-woven baskets and traditional jewelry sit on display — available for purchase, of course. But the proceeds will not be going to line some tribal chair’s pockets. Instead, the money will go to the legal fees the tribe must pay in order to apply for federal recognition.
Federal recognition fosters a “government-to-government relationship” between American Indian and Alaska Native tribes and the U.S. federal government. Currently, there are 565 federally recognized tribes throughout the United States and approximately 1.9 million registered tribal members, according to the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). Less than half of self-identified American Indians are registered with a federally recognized tribe, according to the BIA’s 2005 American Indian Population and Labor report.
As of now there are only three ways a tribe can receive federal recognition: by an act of Congress, by a decision of the federal court system, or by proving a tribe can meet the requirements of the Federal Acknowledgment Process regulations 25 CFR Part 83.
The 25 CFR Part 83 regulation has seven specific details a tribe must meet in order to gain federal recognition — most pointedly, proof of continuity in existence and continued “political influence or authority over its members.”
A notoriously expensive legal procedure, raising funds to cover the costs of lawyers, researchers and academics working on a tribe’s recognition case is half the battle. And it’s a battle the Duwamish tribe has been fighting since 2001 after federal recognition was rescinded by the BIA when it was decided that the tribe had not shown historical continuity — a point of contention for those involved. Currently, the Duwamish tribe is working to appeal the previous decision.
In their defense, the Duwamish look to the Point Elliott Treaty of 1855, which details the rights and reservation the tribe was entitled to in exchange for land the city of Seattle now sits on. The treaty was never fulfilled by the government.
But the story of the Duwamish is nothing new. Tribes throughout the country have struggled to maintain and prove their existence — and continued survival — in order to obtain federal recognition.
There is one anomaly in the case of the Duwamish: They have a central meeting place, a cultural center where they can carry out endangered traditions. The Duwamish tribe raised funds and purchased land in order to build the longhouse that has become central to the community.
But recognition issues are more than casinos and land, bigger than flashing lights and rolls of cash. Federally unrecognized tribes do not have access to the same economic or educational benefits federally recognized tribes do, they do not have the same authority over their cultural artifacts or land, nor do they hold the same political weight.
They are tiny fish among small fish in an even smaller pond.
Arguing Against Academics
In December of last year, President Barack Obama backed the United Nations’ Declaration on Indigenous Rights and spoke on his support of Native Americans at the Tribal Conference held in Washington, D.C. The Declaration was an official recognition of Indigenous sovereignty, and prior to December 2010 the U.S. government had not officially supported it, according to a Reuters article.
But while the president’s willingness to open up a constructive dialogue with Native people is a step in the right direction, American Indians are still faced with high rates of poverty, crime, illness and suicide.
“They made a big show of it and that was beautiful, and yes, there were a hundred tribes there meeting at the White House but not one of them was a federally unrecognized tribe,” Valentin “Val” Lopez, the Amah Mutsun tribal chair, said. “And the unrecognized tribe has never been reached out to by the government.”
In Santa Cruz, the Amah Mutsun — a sub-group of the band of Ohlone people native to the region — are federally unrecognized. Less than an hour away, in San Jose, the Muwekma Ohlone tribe — like its sister tribe, Amah Mutsun, and Duwamish in Washington State — is embroiled in a struggle to receive federal recognition. The Muwekma Ohlone and the Amah Mutsun are subgroups of the Costanoan band of Indians. The Costanoan is a collection of tribes within the cenral coast.
Lopez explained the tribal history that led up to the Amah Mutsun’s current situation and their fight for federal recognition.
The relationship that existed between Catholic missionaries and the Amah Mutsun was misrepresented in a survey of California Native Americans carried out in the early 20th century, Lopez said. The Amah Mutsun were considered absolved as a separate group and absorbed into the growing Latino population. Lopez asserts that historical documents from the Catholic Church as well as previous government censuses challenge the survey.
“It’s a goddamn lie,” Lopez said, his voice quivering with rising frustration. “Our people have suffered greatly because of that.”
What stands between the Amah Mutsun and federal recognition now is a lack of money and tribal politics that pit recognized and unrecognized tribes against one another.
“We’re just second-class Natives,” Lopez said. “There’s that psychological impact: You’re not Indian, because you’re not recognized, and that’s how many communities look at us.”
UC Santa Cruz associate professor of American studies Renya Ramirez said that unrecognized tribes may be faced with individuals who do not believe they truly are American Indians.
“Unfortunately, within Native communities, there is an idea of a ‘real Indian,”’ Ramirez said. “It’s ironic that being recognized by the federal government affects the way people see Natives.”
Lopez said that it was “unfortunate” that the government separated recognized and unrecognized tribes, and that this categorization is detrimental to all Native communities.
Due to their lack of recognition, tribes are denied programs that federally recognized tribes would benefit from. This includes money for higher education, healthcare services, childcare services and cultural restoration and continuance. In addition, tribes like the Amah Mutsun do not have cultural centers or meeting places where tribal members can gather as a community.
Lopez said that without access to resources it becomes difficult to keep Native communities together as a result of financial instability and a lack of opportunity.
Federally recognized tribes have access to job training, social services, natural resources management and housing projects, among other social, educational and economic development programs. Tribes without federal recognition do not, and must provide for their communities without assistance.
“We had a guarantee from the government of tribal sovereignty regarding our religious practices, regarding the way we live,” Lopez said. “Without federal recognition, we have none of that. And that to us is a total injustice.”
But what is in place now — and the tribes that are left chronicling their histories and proving their legitimacy — is the result of past government and academic practices.
Alan Leventhal, an anthropologist from San Jose State University, explains that Alfred L. Kroeber’s “Handbook of the Indians of California,” published in 1925, determined that the Ohlone people, “for all practical purposes, were extinct.” Kroeber was a father of modern anthropology and reputed professor at UC Berkeley, and his work, Leventhal said, has contributed to the misrepresentation of Ohlone people and their history.
When Leventhal was introduced to Rosemary Cambra 30 years ago, the tribal chairwoman of the Muwekma Ohlone, he said he was unfamiliar with California Indians and sought out Kroeber’s text.
“[Rosemary and I] went to the library and I pulled out Kroeber’s book and said, ‘The Costanoan group is extinct for all practical purposes. You must be from some other tribe.’ And she looked at me and said she begged to differ with me and Dr. Kroeber,” Leventhal said. “I was at an impasse. I could have said, ‘I don’t have time for this. Kroeber said you were extinct.’ Or I could apply my research techniques and try and obtain a database that would help the tribe.”
In his research and as he met members of the Ohlone tribe, Leventhal said he began to see the overlap in the stories of the Native community and documents gathered by linguists and anthropologists. The stories of the Muwekma were corroborated with the work of past academics.
Kroeber later retracted his claim that the Costanoan band of Indians was extinct, Leventhal said.
Leventhal further explains that in addition to Kroeber’s errors, Lafayette Dorrington, a Sacramento Superintendent, in 1927 argued against tribal nations’ need for land and, ultimately, federal recognition and assistance.
“Dorrington terminated 135 tribes with a strike of a pen,” Leventhal said. “Some of these things don’t show up in the history books.”
Leventhal said that there is a disconnect between popular perception of Natives and interest in indigenous affairs.
“If Indians do not talk about walking in harmony with Mother Earth, then dominant society decides they don’t want to recognize these people,” Leventhal said. “If they don’t make necklaces, if they don’t wear feathers, if they don’t dance, then [it’s perceived] that they’re not real Indians
Amy Lonetree, associate professor of American studies at UCSC, said that present-day American Indian issues are the residual effects of a history of intolerance.
“For many of these communities, why they are not recognized is because of ongoing colonialism,” Lonetree said. “The great irony is that Native Americans were told there was no place for them as indigenous people, yet everything about who they were as tribal people was being taken from them by scholars and budding anthropologists and hoarded.”
Lonetree describes the Pacific Northwestern Tribal Canoe Journey — in which federally unrecognized tribes like Duwamish, Snohomish and Chinook Nations participate — as an example of reclamation of identity and a way for Native communities to band together in spite of political factions.
“The U.S. government may have their criteria for who is Native, but we know who our native relatives are,” Lonetree said. “And they are indigenous and we recognize that, and we honor that.”
Michael Evans, the Snohomish tribal chair and a proponent of cultural education, has worked with youth from the Duwamish and Snohomish tribes promoting canoe culture as a way to overlook tribal lines.
“The canoe culture … brings people together and starts to unify the community, and that’s what’s really needed,” Evans said. “There are lot of little tribes, but they’re so fractured that they haven’t banded together enough to push some big legislation.”
For people like Lonetree and Evans, the continuation of Native culture in defiance of whether a tribe is recognized or unrecognized is a sign of resilience.
“I feel strongly that culture and self-identity need to be perpetuated, and even though we are not federally recognized, we can still be Natives and First People,” Evans said. “And that needs to be preserved. There is a lot of cultural heritage, self-pride.”
Anthropologist Jon Daehnke has worked extensively with the Chinook nation and is familiar with the difficulties that tribes face when they no longer have a political voice.
Daehnke said he has heard from members of the Chinook nation that they are faced with an internal, emotional conflict.
“We were told we shouldn’t be Indian, but now the government is telling us we aren’t Indian,” Daehnke recalls being told by one member of the Chinook nation.
“This isn’t just about casinos, it isn’t about funding, it’s about identity,” Daehnke continued. “All of these legacies of colonialism don’t stop. It’s not settled. These legacies are still there, and they have real effects on people’s everyday lives.”
Lopez has seen the emotional effects a lack of federal recognition has had on his own family, and the issue is much deeper than money or land rights.
“One of my goals was to get us recognized before [my mother] passed. I failed to do that. She was born a recognized Indian and died an unrecognized Indian, and that right there is really painful,” Lopez said. “There’s a hell of a lot of historic trauma when you cannot have self-esteem, honor and respect for being an Indian.”
The Politics of Ownership
The fight for recognition comes hand in hand with a fight for claim over ancestral remains and funerary objects.
The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), passed in 1990, requires that all institutions that receive federal funding — including museums and universities — catalogue the human remains and specified cultural objects that have been excavated and collected. The institution housing the remains is required to consult with Native American tribes, and if the tribe files a request for the return of the remains and cultural artifacts, the institution must comply.
For federally unrecognized tribes, however, NAGPRA falls short. Under the law, publicly funded institutions are not required legally to return any remains or artifacts to a federally unrecognized tribe.
Federally unrecognized tribes are left relying on the goodwill of universities and museums that can voluntarily return objects and consult Native tribes. While the UC system currently consults Native American tribes on NAGPRA compliance issues, the relationship between the UC and federally unrecognized tribes is ambiguous.
Archaeologist and UCSC professor Judith Habicht-Mauche serves on behalf of UCSC as an advisor on NAGPRA to the UC Office of the President (UCOP), but refused to speak specifically on work the board handles. Only UCs in possession of artifacts that fall under NAGPRA law serve on the board.
“For security reasons, I don’t want to speak about the physical remains we possess,” Habicht-Mauche said.
Habicht-Mauche did confirm that UCSC was in possession of ancestral remains and artifacts. She did not detail where they were stored, what they specifically were, or how many remains the university was in possession of. However, under NAGPRA, the inventories documenting the artifacts in question are published.
As far as Habicht-Mauche knows from her work with the NAGPRA advisory group, a federally unrecognized tribe has not received remains or artifacts from the UC. However, with recent changes to NAGPRA, federally unrecognized tribes may stand a better chance at obtaining ancestral remains and funerary objects.
“The new rules have loosened requirements to some degree, but even under the new law, NAGPRA does not favor federally unrecognized tribes,” Habicht-Mauche said.
Even though the university refuses to speak in detail on items falling under NAGPRA, that does not satisfy tribes that do not have the right to rebury the remains of their ancestors now relegated to museum and university research facilities.
“The problem that the Amah Mutsun has is with any destructive testing done to the bodies, because it’s against our religious beliefs,” Lopez said. “We still have our strong religious beliefs and the spirit can only pass to the other side when it is whole and complete. Whenever you do destructive testing … that means in the end that spirit can never be at peace.”
Lopez also said that the university was “not as open and transparent” as it could be.
Daehnke explains that when contextualizing the issue of repatriation, the moral dilemma becomes apparent.
“The ability of cultures to make decisions about their deceased ancestors, that’s a pretty basic human right,” Daehnke said. “There’s roughly 80 percent of the known sets of human remains are still on museum shelves.”
Education as an Antidote
Tribal issues and the topics pertinent to indigenous communities do not often make the headlines. Recognition issues and repatriation concerns are not necessarily high-profile, and often fall under the radar of those unaffiliated with Native groups.
But amongst American Indian students, organizations and faculty at UCSC, there is a hunger for awareness. It is a swirling torrent, picking up speed and growing in size, that not only wants to see diversity in education, but also the inclusion of an American Indian and indigenous studies program.
Rebeca Figueroa, a participant in the UC Inner-campus Visitor Program, is a second-year anthropology and Native American studies major from UC Davis. Her last two quarters at UCSC have brought her to the American Indian Resource Center (AIRC), where she has collaborated with director Carolyn Dunn to bring a Native American studies program to the school.
“Even though I identify as a Chicana, a lot of the issues we discuss within [Native American studies] relate to me,” Figueroa said. “We understand the issues that Native people are still fighting today, so I felt really close to that. Everyone has a different story, but there is always common ground.”
Currently, Figueroa is seeking outside funding for an American Indian studies program, and hopes to model the program’s evolution after the Jewish studies program. She argues that the importance of Native American studies is because of the bridge between past and present, and how it has shaped indigenous communities today.
“We have to know that these people are still here, that it’s nothing of the past,” Figueroa said. “You go to a reservation and they still don’t have running water, and then you come here and all these people have the luxury that they’re lacking. Why are we here enjoying ourselves when there are people who were here before us that don’t have those rights?”
Figueroa also addressed the issue of federally unrecognized tribes and understanding the status of Native Americans as a topic in need of discussion.
“No one should have the power to say you’re not indigenous enough,” Figueroa said.
Dunn, the director of the AIRC, said that indigenous studies would be the first step to addressing issues relevant to American Indian individuals, but it would also initiate cross-disciplinary conversations.
“With environmental studies, there is indigenous knowledge that has direct scientific exploration or explanation that we could be looking at,” Dunn said. “Looking at indigenous studies or American Indian studies, it’s a very holistic way, and it can cross boundaries into other academic disciplines.”
Indigenous studies is, for students like Figueroa, the next step in addressing the need for greater conversation on American Indian concerns, as well as increasing the presence of Native culture and knowledge on the campus.
“I find it interesting how [UCSC] claims to be very diverse, but it’s not very diverse at all,” Figueroa said. “The conference rooms are named after [indigenous people], and it’s funny that we can name things after people but you don’t see them here.”
But even while indigenous studies may be the first step to changing the perception and situation of American Indians, for now, federally unrecognized communities exist in political limbo.
“It’s recognition that your ancestors went through these struggles and in spite of that they’re still here, we’re still here,” said Mike Evans, tribal chair of the Snohomish and a cultural mentor to many Duwamish youth. “It’s about your history and having others recognize your history, your culture. It’s something you hold dearly, and I’d hate to see that go away.”