Recognition vs. representation

Indiana's attempts to redefine the term "Native American"


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Indiana Sen. Randy Head (R-Logansport) introduced Senate Bill 13 in this last legislative session, hoping to reintroduce language similar to that used in the original statute when the Indiana Native American Indian Affairs Commission was founded as a result of an executive order in 2003 by the late Democratic Gov. Frank O'Bannon.

The bill was an attempt to amend the language in the Indiana Code regarding eligibility of the Commissioners, defining members of historical tribes in Indiana as Native American Indians for the purposes of the Commission.

"The idea was to return to the original language," explains Kerry Steiner, the Commission's executive director. The original language allowed historical tribes of Indiana that maintain current rolls to sit on the Commission, but the wording was changed in 2012, limiting eligibility to federally recognized tribe members. By restoring the original statutory language, SB 13 would have reinstated eligibility to historical Indiana tribes.

Defining terms

The definition of a Native American Indian was established at the federal level to include native Hawaiians and Alaskan natives, as well as members of an enrolled or federally recognized tribe. Indiana Code deviated from the federal language in order to include the Miami Nation of Indians, who are not currently federally recognized ... although they once were.

There are upwards of 6,000 Miamis living in Indiana today. The Indiana Miami, or eastern Miami, received federal recognition in an 1854 treaty. Forty-some years later, recognition was terminated. They have been fighting to regain it ever since.

Ironically, in 1993, a federal judge ruled that the government didn't have the authority to terminate their status in 1897, but that it was too late to appeal. Accordingly, the Supreme Court declined to review a subsequent appeal in 2002.

The Indiana Legislature lent support in 1980 by voting in support of federal recognition, but the U.S. Congress refused to grant it to the Indiana Miami as a tribal group distinct from the western Miami, or Miami Tribe of Oklahoma.

The two tribes were once one, but during removal in 1846, those who remained behind in Indiana became known as the Miami Nation of Indians of the State of Indiana, while those who left became the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma.

The Indiana Miami filed a petition with the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1984, but were told they didn't meet two of the seven criteria needed to achieve federal recognition: specifically, they lacked sufficient evidence of governance and evidence of a distinctive community. The BIA disregarded documentation the tribe provided and denied recognition in 1990.

The following year, Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Indiana) introduced a resolution for federal recognition, but he later withdrew his support after constituents raised concerns over gambling rights. Under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988, Native Americans are allowed to establish casinos on their lands if their states allow Class III gambling. If the Indiana Miami gained federal recognition, they could legally establish casino gambling in Indiana, although the Indiana legislature rejected it.

Gambling opposition was also responsible for the failure of a 2011 bill by the Indiana Legislature to grant state recognition, with the sole authority to determine its tribal membership.

The issue of recognition vs. representation

The Commission's purpose is to help the Native community by advising government officials about employment, education, health, housing and civil rights issues faced by Native Americans in Indiana, and to identify and provide opportunities.

Under the current statute, the governor is responsible for making eight of the appointments to the 15-member (plus two non-voting members) board. Voting members are supposed to include six Native American Indians from different geographic regions and two Native American Indians with knowledge of Native American traditions and spiritual issues.

Every governor since the creation of the commission has seated members of the Miami of Indiana and the Wea Indian Tribe; these tribes have always been represented on the Commission. The idea is to recognize all indigenous peoples who live here and unite the Native community through inclusion.

Despite the unifying intent, as Head acknowledges, "The division has resurfaced." Members of the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma, the only federally recognized Miami Indians in the U.S., showed up at the first meeting of the new Commission in protest.

"The Miami of Oklahoma have shown up at every meeting to protest," Head confirms. They've also made a lot of phone calls to voice their opposition to the appointment of commissioners who are not federally recognized.

Under the current iteration of the Code, Commissioners Erin Oliver of the Indiana Miami and John Boyd of the Wea Tribe are technically ineligible to serve. However, Steiner and Head agree that the issue of eligibility has not impeded the Commission's work.

One way to address the issue is through attrition. According to the minutes of a 2015 public meeting, then-Chairman John Warren said that as commissioners' terms expire or they resign, only members of federally recognized tribes will be appointed in their place.

Meanwhile, objection to the non-federally recognized commissioners continues.

While the protests are seen by some as a time-consuming diversion, Steiner sees this as an opportunity for education. The solution, she believes, is to return to the statute's original language.

Unlucky 13

SB 13 tried to do just that. However, after passing in the Senate, the bill was killed in committee in the House. "The language was too loose," Head reflects. "Any group that calls themselves Native American can qualify."

That's similar to the argument of the Miami of Oklahoma.

Steiner views the problem of the wordage as an issue of intent vs. perception. "As I understand it, the intent was to expand who can come to the table, not change the federal definition of Native American."

Only one tribe has the designation of historic tribe of Indiana. Not only are the Indiana Miami an historic tribe that once had federal recognition, but they also maintain current — and unbroken — rolls. Tribal enrollment is based on documented lineal descent.

Some Indiana tribes, such as the Wea and the Shawnee, have experienced inconsistency in their rolls, but the Miami have never had a break in rolls since they lost federal recognition in the 1800s when the U.S. military broke a treaty. Steiner wonders if this may be the key to rewording of the bill.

Whatever wording might be included in a revised bill — because the state legislature is out of session until next January — it won't be heard this year. "We'll try again next year," Steiner says, at which time she expects to see conversations about what the proposed language might include. She hopes lawmakers will include those who oppose the bill in order to give them a voice.

Head, a non-voting member of the Commission, isn't so sure. "I don't know if we'll reintroduce it again."

While relying on attrition to address the issue of non-federally recognized commissioners will eventually result in cessation of the protests, only a change in the statute's wording — or the achievement of federal recognition — will ensure representation of all of Indiana's Native peoples.


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