|Kenneth Hansen Ph.D|
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BIA stifles tribal self-determination, leads to disenrollment
Many of us have been trying to determine the root causes of tribal disenrollment for many years. Our online friend Emilio Reyes is on to something when he says that the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) is greatly responsible for the lack of recognition (of both tribes and individuals). Federal acknowledgement processes are as byzantine as one can possibly imagine. Renee Cramer (2007) discusses how there are no less than 30 different standards for recognizing who is Indian in the eyes of the US federal government. The acknowledgement process, despite recent attempts at reform, still takes over 30 years.
Why is it that the BIA is unable to resolve intra-tribal conflicts that might eventually lead to disenrollment or banishment of rival factions? One possible explanation is bureaucratic rigidity. In the field of Public Administration, we regularly discuss Merton’s (1957) bureaucratic pathologies, which include such scary-sounding things as the rigidity cycle, trained incapacity, and goal displacement. What seems to have happened to the BIA (from the outside looking in) is that as an organization, they have no sense of their place in history.
Rigid bureaucratic thinking does not allow for that. Historically, when tribal communities were divided, one or both factions might decide to move to a different place and establish a new village. A new tribe would be born. Let me give a couple of examples.
George Harwood Phillips (1996) describes how in 1776 California, the Quechan people were divided over how to deal with the Spanish invasion of their territory, having been among the first to be incarcerated in Fr. Serra’s despicable mission system. One leader, Salvador Palma, attempted to be an ally to the Spanish. His brother Ygnacio saw the Spanish for what they were, and attempted to move out of their reach. Ygancio had many followers who left with him over this dispute. Eventually, Salvador tired of being treated as a vassal. He saw the Spanish taking the best land and water resources, and fumed about them reneging on presents and trade agreements. Salvador and Ygnacio eventually reunited their peoples in 1781 to fight a battle against the Spanish pueblos near present-day Yuma, which cut off the land route from Mexico to California. As an aside, I always thought this plot line would make a great script for a movie.
I was told a similar story by a former student from Natchitoches (pronounced “Nacodish”), Louisiana, about the founding of the sister town of Nacadoches, Texas. Again, it was two brothers who split their people, with one group leaving Natchitoches to start a new village within the Caddo Confederacy. Eventually during colonization, one town ended up in the possession of the French, and the other in the possession of the Spanish. Both examples, one from Southern California, the other from the Texas-Louisiana border, shows how tribes break apart and sometimes get back together in a relatively organic way.
Since it seems to be at least an occasional occurrence that tribal communities fracture or sunder, one might think that there would be a government plan for such contingencies, but there’s not. The BIA treats tribal societies—reservations, rancherias, and pueblos—as static, sedentary communities, when historically and pre-historically the reverse was true. Indigenous peoples frequently moved, split apart, and came together again, depending on desire or circumstance. No longer free peoples, American Indians are confined to lands that are often not our historic territories, or banished to urban settings through practices like termination.
Though we allegedly live in the era of self-determination (which might be coming to a close given recent events, but that’s another subject), the BIA still behaves like a colonial agency. When tribes have irreconcilable internal political differences, such as with the Chukchansi legitimacy crisis, there should be a mechanism for an amicable divorce between factions. Current policy refuses to recognize such splits within tribal communities, because once a group has been recognized, they cannot be re-recognized in another form. In other words, if a faction of a tribe is disenrolled, banished, or exiled, even if they keep family allotments or are in possession of trust land, they cannot be recognized as a new tribe by the BIA. It is expressly prohibited. There is a process for re-recognizing terminated tribes. Perhaps something similar could be established for when factions become sundered from the parent group under certain conditions. If they need help, I’d be happy to write it up for them.
However, perhaps responding to the preferences of already-recognized tribes that do not care to share limited resources, or perhaps not wanting to share resources themselves,* BIA administrators choose to not acknowledge new tribes if they can possibly avoid it. An example is the recent decision to not recognize the North Fork Mono Tribe (not to be confused with neighboring North Fork Rancheria) despite the fact that the tribe has 15 family allotments that have been in their possession for several generations, under the auspices and regulation of the BIA. If they own tribal land, and the government recognizes that, how is the tribal government still not recognized? According to the Honorable Chairman Ron Goode of the North Fork Mono Tribe, the BIA doesn’t have a reasonable answer to that question. Indeed, the courts have been better at reestablishing terminated tribes, and the Congress has been better at recognizing tribes, than has the BIA in recent years.
I think it says something when the Congress—which is ponderously slow on most days—can act faster than a government agency staffed with professionals and tasked with overseeing the very process at which they seem to be increasingly inept. A bill was recently introduced to the House Natural Resources Committee, which oversees Indian affairs, to take the BIA’s recognition power away from them and leave it in the hands of the Congress. I don’t know about the chances of it passing, nor if it is even a good idea. At the very least, it would be appropriate for the relevant committees in both houses of Congress to oversee this paternalistic agency much more closely.
To conclude, the bureaucratic rigidity cycle at work in the BIA makes it a terribly unresponsive agency. While tribal communities tear themselves apart from the inside-out with disenrollment between rival factions, the BIA dithers. So much so that Congress may take back some of their powers. Other agencies, such as the National Park Service, make a great effort to be flexible in dealing with changing tribal demands. Can the BIA decolonize and become a partner instead of an overlord? That would be a pretty tall order at the present time. However, the federal government needs to create more flexibility when it comes to dealing with dispossessed Indians. This should include ways to recognize the disenrolled. As with many policy problems today, we have solutions, we just lack the political will to implement them.
*The late Senator John McCain once had the Senate Indian Affairs Committee research what the BIA did with their annual budgets. They found that the BIA kept 75 cents of every dollar allocated for Indian Country.