Federally recognized tribes have not been as supportive of the federal recognition of new tribal communities as they perhaps could. The primary case is lack of support for Lumbee recognition efforts. The Lumbee have for many years sought full federal recognition, but achieved recognition with no benefits from the BIA. While many tribal communities may be favorable toward the federal recognition of currently non-recognized tribes, there is often lack of political support from many tribes for recognition.
As many as 300 communities have applied for recognition with the Office of Federal Acknowledgment. The tribal recognition came to national legislative attention during the early 1970s, when the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs published about a dozen volumes of research and recommendations to strengthen tribal self-determination policy. One volume suggested that hundreds of Indian communities in the United States remained unrecognized by the federal government, and recommended that the BIA establish procedures for tribal recognition. These recommendations were passed into law in the late 1970s; since then, the BIA has been in the business of soliciting and judging evidence from tribal communities seeking federal recognition.
Federally recognized tribal communities often are non-supportive of the recognition efforts of tribal communities in part because they see the recognition of additional tribal communities as taking a share of currently inadequate and probably dwindling federal financial support from the federal government. While in recent years there has been considerable attention given to economic development and casino income, most tribal communities remain largely dependent on federal funds. Economic development and gaming successes are distributed unevenly throughout Indian country. Federal recognition of more tribal communities implies fewer federal financial resources for many tribes that most need federal financial programs and support.
Further complicating the recognition process in recent years is the fear of competition from the gaming rights and locations of newly recognized tribal communities. Tribes see some well-located tribal communities as potential threats to their own gaming enterprises. Furthermore, when tribes such as the Passamaquoddy sought land and federal recognition, state governments sought to limit the possibilities of Indian gaming. States like Maine and Massachusetts have not been willing to grant newly federally recognized tribes rights to engage in gaming, thereby depriving those communities from their most lucrative economic opportunity to climb out of centuries of economic poverty and deprivation.
Tribes can gain federal recognition through acts of Congress, but such processes are increasingly subject to strong state control over the rights to gaming or outright prohibitions against gaming for newly recognized tribal communities. Even when a tribal community can manage to get recognized through the OFA process or through legislative act, there is considerable pressure to restrict tribal sovereignty in ways that other federally recognized communities are not subject.
It is often now assumed that communities seeking federal recognition are largely after gaming revenues, even though many have been working on recognition efforts long before the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988. Gaming is a right of self-government and should be available to tribal communities who demonstrate their tribal history and heritage. States and the federal government have a public interest in Indian gaming activities, and IGRA and the National Indian Gaming Commission are assigned the task of mediation and regulation. Like federally recognized tribes, newly recognized tribes should also have the right to comply with federal statutes like IGRA, and not suffer specific legislative acts or agreements that inhibit the exercise of tribal government powers that prohibit or otherwise restrict gaming rights
The OFA has the task of determining whether non-recognized tribal communities seeking recognition should be granted recognition. The BIA has created a set of criteria that petitioning unrecognized tribes must meet by submitting legal, historical and genealogical evidence of the following: distinct Indian community, external recognition, continuity of community culture, political leadership, continuity of political influence and lineal descent from Indian tribal members. OFA sees its task as one of ensuring that only deserving tribal communities that have preserved their identity through thick or thin over the past several centuries, regardless of unfavorable political, economic and policy conditions, are recognized.
Meeting the recognition criteria is difficult, but the process excludes undeserving groups such as New Agers who claim to take up Indian spiritual beliefs and understanding. The criteria, however, are difficult enough to inhibit and prevent recognition of many tribal communities who have suffered through land dispossession, assimilation policies, and the absence of consistent federal relations or trust responsibility. Tribal communities that have presented their petitions to OFA often are placed on a waiting list that suggests their case will not be considered for as long as 20 years into the future.
Non-recognized tribes will remain saddled with difficult and cumbersome recognition procedures, but that burden could be somewhat relieved with greater collective and individual attention from the national tribal organizations. Ensuring that deserving federally non-recognized tribal communities gain recognition should be a primary goal for Indian country. While the financial incentives of the federal relations inhibit tribal support for more tribally recognized communities, Indian communities should not bow to these material constraints, and recognize the cultural diversity and political sovereignty of all tribal communities.