Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Dangers of State Recognition

Tennessee Indian status dispute has tribes at odds

Clarksville leader defends move

A dispute over tribal recognition has some American Indians in Tennessee at odds with a well-established tribe in another state. And a state American Indian caucus chaired by a Clarksvillian has positioned itself right in the middle of it.

The Tennessee Commission of Indian Affairs officially recognized six new tribes last month, a move that will make them eligible for federal funding and minority status.

Jim Cossingham, a retired business consultant who now lives in Clarksville, praised the decision, noting the new opportunities it will provide local tribe members.

Cossingham, a member of the Nipmuc Tribe of Massachusetts, said he's worked with American Indian tribes for years, helping them apply for federal funding.

The scarcity of that funding appears to be at the heart of opposition to the new tribes. The most vocal opponent has been the Cherokee Nation — an Oklahoma-based tribe that likened the new Tennessee tribes to "culture clubs" in a recent Tennessean report.

A Cherokee Nation spokesman told the Tennessean they did not deny that the members of the Tennessee tribes have Native American lineage.

"What we absolutely dispute is that they are tribes," said Mark Greene, a Nashville lobbyist who works for the Cherokee Nation.

Responded Cossingham: "Now, who are they to tell us what we are? What expertise does their lobbyist have to say (that)?

"The commission put those six tribes through a very, very daunting process," he added. "They didn't say, 'OK, here you are, here's your certificate.'" (let's see, some of the commission members were also members of these *tribes* - just exactly how daunting was it?)

Funding isn't the only thing at stake.

"This is not just an economic issue from my standpoint — this is a civil rights issue," said Cossingham, who chairs the independent Tennessee Native American Convention.

The Tennessean report highlighted the cultural importance of the move for previously unrecognized tribe members. Before the commission vote, one woman said she felt like an outcast in the Native American community. "I'm more than just an Indian," Edna Duncan told
The Tennessean. "I know who I am now."

Another benefit to state recognition is an ability for tribes to market their arts and crafts as Indian-made; a federal law intended to protect tribes from con artists peddling fake Indian goods has had the opposite effect on unrecognized but full-blooded American Indians. The penalty for selling without official status is up to $250,000 for individuals.

The decision was one of the last acts for the TCIA, whose status as a state agency was not renewed by the Legislature for the 2010-11 year.

Cossingham said tribal recognition was a focus for the TCIA and TNAC. TNAC appoints TCIA members, and Cossingham said they replaced five of the seven commission members recently, with that goal in mind.

"Just as we get something moving now, all of a sudden the commission is going to be sunset," Cossingham said.

"(But) we'll live with this. We've got another governor and another Legislature in six months," that should, he said, reinstate the agency.