Recognition – Acknowledging and Denying Existence


Seminole warrior Tuko-see-mathla, 1834.

By federal law any group or tribe of Indians only officially exist as a unit – a tribe – if the government says its does.  The process of recognition can be long and complicated, in its simplest form is a continual of a relation that began the first time the tribe and the government met.  There are tribes that have been continuously recognized by the federal government since the tribes and other world governments first recognized the existence of the United States.  In the early days, the American government needed the support of the larger tribes and treated them as equal states, negotiating treats and agreeing to common purposes.

Over time the United States grew in population and power, that allowed the federal government to dominate the individual Indian tribes.  The United States created and maintained an active army, something the tribes did not have.  The army was a major factor in the changing relationships, but more important was the expansion of the original colonies into every avail square mile of territory on the continent – Manifest Destiny.  Only the existence of governments backed by European states to the north and south kept the expansion within the limits in occupies today.

During the long period of expansion the federal government adopted a number of different policies toward Indian tribes.  Sometimes making war on the tribes and driving them into other territories, sometimes signing treaties that granted land to the tribes; one occasion in 1831 the Untied States even tried to move all of the Indians in the southern states to some distant and undesirable place in the west – Oklahoma.  Of course under the pressure of westward expansions the feds changed their minds and wanted most of that land for settlement also.  That resettlement effort is known today as the Trail of Tears because of the large number of Indians that suffered and died on the way.

Not all of the Indians in the south moved however, some of the Seminoles and other Florida tribes remained in Florida, as did some tribes in North Carolina.  The majority however were moved.  Some of those who did not move have tried for a very long time to gain federal recognition; the Muscogee Nation is one that is seeking federal recognition. They first applied for recognition in 1947 and are still working at the process.  A woman leading today’s efforts recalls that when her grandfather first sent a letter to the Bureau of Indian Affairs – the reply said: “you can’t be a real tribe, the members of that tribe are all dead or removed to Oklahoma.”  Typical of a government response, the writer seems to have believed the government propaganda of the 1830s that claimed the total success in eliminating the Indians from the southern states.

The issue of recognition is further complicated by Indian gaming, the possibility that a tribe can have a casino creates more opposition and resistance to recognition.  Every application finds resistance from some party – even competitive tribes – who do not want a casino in the region.  For Florida tribes recognition is further complicated because some members of the tribe were moved to Oklahoma and live there as federally recognized tribes with reservations, governments and casinos. The Muscogees have not given up hope, but many generations have come and gone waiting.

In New York, the Shinnecock Indian Nation gain recognition today, it becomes the 565th federally recognized tribe.  The Shinnecoks only preexisted the government of the United States and the state of New York by about a thousand years. They lived on Long Island when the first white settlers arrived and only had to wait 200 odd years to be seen as existing.  A marvelous system!

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1 Response to “Recognition – Acknowledging and Denying Existence”


  1. 1 Avril Hakkinen November 13, 2010 at 3:59 am

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