Albion Monitor /News

250 Tribes Wait for U.S. Recognition

by Mark Matthews

About 250 tribes nationwide that are not officially recognized by the federal bureaucracy
When people see Jesse Azure of Ronan they don't think Indian. And neither does the U.S. government. This isn't just a result of his pale complexion.

Azure is an enrolled member of the Little Shell Band -- one of about 250 tribes nationwide that are not officially recognized by the federal bureaucracy. [Including the Coast Miwok of Sonoma and Marin Counties.]

"In my mind I am full-blood, but I still struggle with my identity," he says. "People don't know about the Little Shell and it's hard to explain who we are when the government won't even acknowledge us."

As many as 100 Little Shell people live on the Flathead Reservation, with another 200 scattered around Missoula, according to the Little Shell tribal office in Great Falls. There are about 4,000 members statewide, mostly in central Montana.

The Salish and Kootenai recognize the Little Shell and offer them health benefits. Not many other tribes do.

The state of Montana also recognizes the band that includes many French-Indian "Metis" people.

"Our people have all the disadvantages of being Indians, but we don't have any of the so-called advantages"
The Little Shell are stuck with this shadow heritage because the tribe never signed a treaty with the federal government. They, along with about 90 other tribes, are undergoing a strict and arduous federal recognition process to try and change that status.

The vast majority of unrecognized Indian peoples are from Eastern and Midwestern tribes that were overrun by early colonial settlement. Another 40 tribes, whose treaties have never been approved by Congress, reside in California. There are also nine unrecognized tribes in the Pacific Northwest.

Many other tribes have yet to begin the process.

"Our people have all the disadvantages of being Indians, but we don't have any of the so-called advantages," says Little Shell tribal leader James Parker Shield. "We suffer the consequences of racial prejudice and poverty, but we aren't allowed federal health and housing benefits."

The federal recognition process isn't easy and there are forces opposing it -- including some reservation Indians who don't want to share their piece of the federal-benefits pie.

If acknowledgment comes through, as it has already for a handful of landless tribes, the Little Shell will be able to negotiate with state and local governments over education and law enforcement policies. It would also give the tribe access to federal Indian programs for education and health services. Some hope that acknowledgment may lead to a reservation.

But the Little Shell have an added incentive to successfully claim their heritage. Acknowledgment would give them access to a share of $2.2 million the government paid the tribe for land it lost on the Turtle Mountain Reservation of North Dakota at the turn of the century.

In 1892, while Chief Little Shell was in Montana on a hunting trip with his band, the Pembina Chippewa of Turtle Mountain in North Dakota sold thousands of acres of land to white settlers for ten cents an acre. When Little Shell returned he refused to acknowledge the infamous Ten Cent Treaty and left the reservation with 112 families.

For years the band, along with its Metis cousins, wandered around central Montana until it became too settled.

Jesse Azure's family history parallels the story of the Little Shell Band.

"My father [Jerry Azure] was born in a tent on the prairie somewhere north of Zurich on the Hi-Line," Jesse says.

Jerry Azure, one of 13 children, left his family as a teenager to become a migrant farm worker. He later became an iron worker and, in 1976, moved to the Flathead Reservation. He was the Little Shell tribal leader when he died in 1981.

Jesse Azure, 34, followed in his father's footsteps and joined the Iron Workers Local 598 in Kalispell after graduating from the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Community College, where he received some financial assistance from the tribes. Now he runs his own business in Ronan building roads, dams and bridges -- J.D. Iron Inc.

Many of the Little Shell have not fared so well.

When technology replaced migrant workers, many Little Shell moved to shanty towns on the outskirts of Montana's cities and towns.

"I remember when I was young visiting relatives who lived on Hill 57 in Great Falls," Jesse Azure says. "Most Indians there lived in rickety old shacks."

Hill 57, a barren swell of prairie to the south of Great Falls, got its name after Heinz Co. salesman painted a big number 57 on the hill's large boulders (the number is a Heinz slogan referring to its line of food products). Indian families hunkered down on Hill 57 in abandoned cars, cardboard huts and wooden shacks. Conditions were so miserable that in 1942 five Indian children living on the hill died of malnutrition. Today many Little Shell in Great Falls live in public housing projects.

If they miss documentation on one generation then they're out of luck
Tribes can gain recognition by petitioning Congress. But most go to the federal Branch of Acknowledgment and Research (BAR). Chief Harold Hatcher of the National Coalition for Indian Sovereignty says the BAR's tribal recognition process takes much too long.

All the tribes have already waited more than 200 years, he says. His own Chicora-Waccamaw tribe in South Carolina began the process in 1994. Interior officials say 171 groups expressed an interest in applying after the law was changed in 1978, but that only 90 actually submitted documentation.

"In 18 years, the BAR has resolved only 26 cases," Hatcher says. "If that continues my kids will be about 88 years old before they started on ours." So far only 12 tribes have been granted recognition. That's less than 50 percent of those that have been processed.

"The BAR has set a standard of proof that is unfair," Hatcher says. "They will shoot down a tribe for any reason they can."

Attorney Rachael Paschal agrees. She studied the BAR while at the University of Washington Law School and found the process "more burdensome than the problems which the BIA intended to correct."

Tribes must meet seven criteria, including providing proof that they've been identified as Indians since 1900, have maintained a distinct community with a political structure from historical time and possess a governing document with enrollment qualifications.

Petitions are reviewed by a historian, anthropologist and genealogist. A tribe can be denied recognition if it fails to satisfy only one criteria.

One of the major drawbacks for the tribes is that BAR will not simply accept a tribe's interaction with the Bureau of Indian Affairs as proof of its existence, Paschal says. Since most tribes had no written language, this puts Indians at a great disadvantage, forcing them to rely on the record-keeping of other organizations like trading posts, churches or state governments. If they miss documentation on one generation then they're out of luck.

Paschal also found that tribes which trace their genealogy through both parents, marry outside the tribe or practice adoption are at a disadvantage in tracing their genealogy. And regardless of the outcome, the process can cost between $50,000 and $150,000.

Mark Schoepfle, BAR's cultural anthropologist, says the process is inherently difficult.

"On the one hand we're expected to be flexible enough to take into account the unique historical features of each tribe," he says, "and on the other hand we have to follow rigorous regulations so we're not making up the rules as we go along."

Schoephle defends the time-consuming reviews, saying: "The process is so rigorous because of what is at stake. If a group is going to be recognized they must provide the same evidence that historically recognized tribes have presented before them."

Under one bill considered by Congress, tribes would only have one shot at recognition
The loudest voices against further recognition of Indian tribes are those of other Indians concerned about protecting their federal benefits.

At the request of Indians of the Tulalip Reservation in Washington state, Rep. Jack Metcalf (R-Wash.) introduced a bill in the 104th Congress to prevent some unrecognized tribes in Puget Sound from legally referring to themselves as Indians. Under the measure, which did not pass, any tribe that has already been rejected for recognition by a court could not try again through the BAR's administrative process.

Tulalip cultural resource manager Hank Gobin says his people are not trying to jeopardize the chances of tribes outside Puget Sound, but Indian advocates say some 100 unrecognized tribes across the country would feel the consequences of such a measure. For one thing, the bill required any Indian group seeking recognition to show that a majority of its members live in a specific geographic area -- a condition that some recognized tribes would be hard pressed to meet.

"My grandparents paid the price for where we are today," Gobin says. "There was not a lot here in the 1870s and they really suffered... Now that the tribe is finally getting something out of the treaty, they [off-reservation Indians] want a piece of the pie."

At stake is a lucrative casino which the Tulalip operate on their reservation, as well as an estimated 50 percent of the Indian salmon fishing rights in Puget Sound.

Earning federal recognition doesn't necessarily mean a tribe will get a reservation. In most cases the best Congress will do is pay tribes for lost homelands or transfer public holdings to them.

Many tribes have given up all hope of a homeland of their own. Azure knows he'll never live on a reservation owned by his own people.

"Hopefully we could acquire a parcel of land where we could take care of our business," he says. "It would be a community we could call our own."

Shield calls such a place a "psychological Mecca" for his people.

This article first appeared in the Missoula Independent

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Albion Monitor March 6, 1997 (

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