By Rob Hotakainen, McClatchy Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON — As a proud Chinook Indian, Gary Johnson rejects the claim that his tribe in southwestern Washington state is extinct, even though that’s what the Bureau of Indian Affairs declared more than 12 years ago.
“They couldn’t be more wrong,” said Johnson, a former chairman of the tribe that helped Lewis and Clark navigate the Pacific Northwest in the early 1800s.
Rob Jacobs of North Carolina’s Lumbee Tribe said it was silly that he couldn’t legally wear his eagle feathers because his tribe wasn’t among the 566 federally recognized tribes.
“We have to ask for permission to be Indian,” said Jacobs. “Think about it. It’s so sad.”
While no one bothers to count the tribes that have long gone unrecognized by the U.S. government, experts estimate the number at well over 200.
That might change, under new rules proposed by the Obama administration. They would give more tribes a faster track at joining the ranks of the recognized by making it easier for them to prove their legitimacy.
“This opens the door of opportunity,” said Patty Ferguson-Bohnee, the director of the Indian legal program and a professor at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University.
It also opens the door to money. Winning such recognition makes a tribe eligible for more federal benefits and is a prerequisite to apply for the biggest prize of all: the right to run a casino.
While the rules have won backing from large tribal groups, they’re generating lots of controversy. The Bureau of Indian Affairs has set a deadline of Sept. 30 for the public to weigh in and will then decide whether to adopt the rules.
Gambling opponents say the rules are too lenient and should be scrapped. Some smaller tribes say the rules are too onerous, fearing they’ll still be denied the recognition they’ve sought for decades.
Under the new rules, tribes would be required to document political influence or authority only since 1934, rather than as early as 1789. And they’d no longer be required to demonstrate that third parties have identified them as tribes since 1900.
The National Congress of American Indians, the nation’s largest organization of tribal governments, passed a resolution endorsing the new rules “as a matter of long-overdue justice and fairness.” The group said the current rules, adopted in 1978, had “severely deteriorated,” causing decades long delays and containing “irrational documentation requirements.”
When the Obama administration published the new rules in May, Kevin Washburn, the head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, called the changes “long overdue.”
Even if they’re approved, the bureau says it’s uncertain how many more tribes might get recognized, how much it might cost taxpayers, or whether any of the newly sanctioned tribes would get to open casinos.
“Whether to grant federal recognition and whether a tribe is eligible for Indian gaming are two wholly separate questions, governed by wholly separate standards and evaluated under wholly different processes,” said Nedra Darling, spokeswoman for the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Photo: MCT/Rob Jacobs
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