Economic Development

Tribal Trouble in Tennessee

Given the limited number of Native Americans, it would be natural to expect that today's tribes would welcome the recognition of any new group with...
by | October 31, 2009
 

Given the limited number of Native Americans, it would be natural to expect that today's tribes would welcome the recognition of any new group with a proper claim to Indian heritage. But things don't always happen the way you expect.

The federal government grants official recognition to the biggest and best-known tribes, making them eligible to receive assistance through a variety of programs. But there are hundreds of tribes still trying to navigate the arduous federal recognition process. As a result, about 20 states grant separate recognition under the terms of state law.

That can help the aspiring tribes in several ways--giving tribal leaders standing in child welfare cases, for example, or taking the Indian viewpoint into official accounts when history lessons are drawn up for schoolchildren. But for the most part, state recognition plays no role in determining eligibility for federal programs.

Even so, some of the established tribes don't like to see the states doing this. That's the case in Tennessee, where the legislature recently took up a bill, sponsored by top leaders in both chambers, that would have granted recognition to a half-dozen remnant bands living within state borders. The influential Cherokee tribes, headquartered in Oklahoma and North Carolina, objected strongly, in part because they felt that some of the bands were actually Cherokee and thus should be folded within the larger group under federal rules. "The recognition of Native American tribes has always been a matter of federal law," says Bob Tuke, a Nashville lobbyist retained by the Cherokee. "The Cherokee naturally have a good bit of pride and legal interest in making sure that their nation remains properly identified."

And financial interest, too, to hear the bill's sponsors tell the story. Tennessee does not allow casino gambling, but state recognition of the applicants would have given them authentication for a variety of arts and crafts they sell and possibly brought in substantial revenue. "It's very, very, very clear to me that what it's about is people who currently have recognition simply don't want anyone else recognized," says Jason Mumpower, the Tennessee Republican House leader. "There is a pool of money that comes to them, and they don't want it diluted anymore."

Similar complaints have been heard in other states, many of which have set up councils to determine the groups that should receive recognition. Sometimes this process works well, but critics contend that it can function as just one more means of barring new members from the club.

Tennessee set up such a board within its Commission on Indian Affairs a dozen years ago. The board has yet to recognize a single tribe.

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