Southeastern Indians: the quest for federal acknowledgment and a new legal status.

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Quinn, William W., Jr. “Southeastern Indians: the quest for federal acknowledgment and a new legal status.” From big game to bingo: native peoples of the Southeastern United States: a retrospective occasioned by the sesquicentennial of the great removal. Proceedings of a conference conducted at the Florida State University during March 5-7, 1987. Ed. J. Anthony Paredes and J. Leitch Wright, Jr. Pages 255-274.


Useful, perceptive discussion of the process by which the BIA’s criteria for federal acknowledgment were developed. Quinn notes that the starting point was principles described in Felix Cohen’s Handbook of Federal Indian Law (1942) combined with data collected by Task Force Ten, “Terminated and Nonfederally Recognized Tribes,” of the American Indian Policy Review Commission. A draft list of criteria was published in the Federal Register. It received voluminous comments, so formal hearings were held across the country. All this input was used to substantially revise the criteria which were again published in the Federal Register. The same process was repeated, leading to the final criteria. Although the criteria are not perfect, Cohen stated that the United States was forced to devise a practical definition of a tribe. He asserts that, unlike Congressional recognition, it is “the only consistent, uniform, and nonarbitrary procedure available to unacknowledged Indian groups” (p. 259).

Quinn emphasizes that the federal acknowledgment criteria represent the definition of tribe within the meaning of federal law. He contrasts this with three other definitions of an Indian person—legal, genetic (or biological), and ethnic (or cultural)—giving examples of each. He explains why some petitioning groups in the Southeast have been turned down. They may be extended families with Indian ancestry, rather that true communities; or Indian descent recruitment organizations composed of people who probably don’t know each other and whose claim to Indian ancestry has not been questioned.

Quinn notes that the issue of triraciality is a sensitive one for Southeastern tribes. He states that according to the federal acknowledgment criteria, “triraciality is a non-issue” ( p. 9). He notes that, as of this writing, two triracial groups have been recognized (from Rhode Island and from Massachusetts). Their triraciality was dealt with directly in evaluating their petitions, since the criteria of ancestry, distinctness, and community identification would bring it into discussion anyway. He notes that blood quantum was also a concern for Eastern and Southeastern groups “because of the length of Anglo-Indian contact and the extent of miscegenation which occurred in these regions, in contrast, for example, to the same phenomenon in the trans-Mississippi West” (p. 268). There is no requirement of a minimum blood quantum for federal acknowledgment. Such a requirement was considered at one point but was abandoned because it seemed unreasonable to require unacknowledged tribes to meet a degree of Indian blood that many tribes which are already acknowledged could not meet. (Quinn notes that some acknowledged tribes have members whose degree of Indian blood is in the hundredths.) Another reason the idea was abandoned was that having unacknowledged tribes gather such data, and checking it, would be a research nightmare.

He concludes, “The quanta of Indian blood in members of unacknowledged groups petitioning for federal acknowledgment is therefore never a substantive issue for the Branch of Acknowledgment Research, regardless of its relatively small percentages in various petitioners. The issue is perceived much differently by the American public, however, which seems perfectly willing to accept claims of ‘full blood,’ and which, apparently, does not realize that as such claims increase, true full-blood Native Americans represent an ever-decreasing percentage of the national Indian population” (p. 268).

Quinn makes some perceptive observations on “pan-Indian” organizations, events, and regalia.  He concludes that “for those unacknowledged groups petitioning for federal acknowledgment which otherwise meet the criteria in 25 CFR 83, the adoption or lack of adoption of such explicit pan-Indian forms of Indian identity is irrelevant.  The petitioners with socially and politically distinct communities which have maintained tribal cohesion since historic times will be successful, regardless of these trappings.  Conversely, the recently formed groups with all the pan-Indian cultural fanfare will not” (pp. 270-271).

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