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Statewide View: Congress, don't allow cultural appropriations of Minnesota's tribes

From the column: "There are literally hundreds of groups that claim to be tribes without evidence. Once Congress short-circuits Interior’s recognition process for one of these illegitimate groups, the Pandora’s box will open."

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2014 News Tribune file photo / Jennifer Peterson of Duluth helps secure a headdress made from deer and porcupine hair for her husband Rudy in preparation for the Grand Entry at the 25th annual Circle of Native Nations powwow at Wessman Arena in Superior.
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From profit-driven footwear companies posing as Indians in our state to others who claim Native cultural ancestry for other self-serving reasons, cultural appropriation of Minnesota’s Native American populations has gone on for decades and shows no signs of stopping. The University of Minnesota’s American Indian Student Cultural Center now even holds an “Our Culture is Not Your Costume” campaign every year to draw more awareness to the problem.

However, the sad reality is that if some members of Congress get their way, cultural appropriation of Natives will worsen and effectively become sanctioned by legislative fiat.

A coalition of tribal leaders representing the concerns of more than 140 tribes across the country recently held a briefing for congressional staff in the U.S. Capitol over this concern. In particular, they expressed alarm about legislation under consideration, including the Lumbee Recognition Act and MOWA Band of Choctaw Indians Act, that would allow groups with questionable backgrounds to obtain federal recognition as Native tribes without having to provide required proof of their ancestry.

Any sitting member of Congress should know that groups with contentious claims aren’t supposed to receive federal recognition through a congressional rubber stamp. There is a prescribed set of rules and procedures. They are supposed to go through the official recognition petitioning process that Congress created through the Department of Interior. This process is straightforward and merely verifies standard information, such as whether each group has been identified as an American Indian entity on a substantially continuous basis and whether it has existed as a community from historical times until the present. If the evidence supports it, the group will be recognized as a tribe. There is no valid reason for any group to ignore or circumvent this process.

It’s understandable why groups whose claims have long been questioned by historians and genealogical experts want to circumvent the process. There likely is no validity to their claims. So the only path forward is to seek to create this congressional loophole. Nevertheless, Congress should not be in the business of helping groups evade authentication of their claims. Doing so would have significant consequences for Minnesota’s Native population and possibly the general public.

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Recognizing illegitimate tribes as real ones could lead to mass cultural appropriation. That’s because, by definition, all groups seeking federal recognition claim descendancy from other existing tribal nations. Having federal recognition as a Native tribe from Congress would allow these groups to assume legitimate tribes’ unique identities and customs and ultimately give them access to their scarce, essential cultural items, such as eagle feathers and peyote, as well as the remains of their ancestors — and even the ability to establish claims to the sacred sites they hold dear.

These threats won’t necessarily be rare occurrences, either. There are literally hundreds of groups that claim to be tribes without evidence. Once Congress short-circuits Interior’s recognition process for one of these illegitimate groups, the Pandora’s box will open. We can expect dozens more to come knocking.

Native Americans in Minnesota have plenty of other concerns to worry about. Potential federal assaults on their sovereignty shouldn’t be among them.

Minnesota’s Sen. Tina Smith serves on the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. She has long been a champion and ally of Native American tribes. Hopefully, she will use the influence of her position to squelch these loophole bills before they ever see the light of day.

Native rights are too important to be bartered away in congressional political horse-trading games. Indians have seen this game played before, and they have usually been the losers. Congress needs to kill this loophole legislation before it gets tucked into a must-pass bill. We owe our Native neighbors and friends no less.

Gil Gutknecht of Rochester, Minnesota, worked with Minnesota’s native tribes on sovereignty issues during his tenures in both the Minnesota House and U.S. House of Representatives. He wrote this for the News Tribune.

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Gil Gutknecht

Related Topics: U.S. CONGRESS
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