Native American tribes have long, hard path to ‘recognition’

For a group of individuals to be recognized as a Native American tribe is difficult.

Some say it is too difficult, that the burden of proof is too high. They bristle at the notion that they have to “prove I am a Native American.”

Others argue it is too lenient, that there are some “tribes” whose members may have no more Native American bloodline than most Americans picked randomly off the street -- the result of living in the “Melting Pot” that is America.

Regardless of how the criteria for federal recognition is viewed, it is a process that can take years, even decades, and is intended to be fair and thorough.

While the Census may allow people to “self-identify” as Native Americans, and families may have anecdotal accounts passed down through the generations about their Indian ancestry, the federal government needs more concrete evidence to establish what would become a sovereign nation within the United States.


The seven criteria that must be met are:

* The petitioner has been identified as an American Indian entity on a substantially continuous basis since 1900.
* The petitioner comprises a distinct community and demonstrates that it existed as a community from 1900 until the present.
* The petitioner has maintained political influence or authority over its members as an autonomous entity from 1900 until the present.
* The petitioner must provide a copy of the entity's present governing document, including its membership criteria or, in the absence of a governing document, a written statement describing in full its membership criteria and current governing procedures.
* The petitioner's membership consists of individuals who descend from a historical Indian tribe, or from historical Indian tribes that combined and functioned as a single autonomous political entity.
* The petitioner's membership is composed principally of persons who are not members of any federally recognized Indian tribe.
* Neither the petitioner nor its members are the subject of congressional legislation that has expressly terminated or forbidden the federal relationship.

The process begins with the petitioning tribe sending a letter of intent to the assistant secretary of Indian Affairs.


The tribes are sent a packet of information which includes the seven criteria listed above. The tribe then gathers and submits documentation to support its application and to verify it meets all of the eligibility criteria.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Branch of Acknowledgment and Research (BAR) reviews the documentation.

If BAR determines the documentation is insufficient, the petitioner has an unlimited amount of time to gather and submit additional documentation.

If the application is deemed sufficient, it moves to the “active consideration” phase, which can take up to a year. At the end of that phase, the tribe receives a “proposed finding.”

Following a period to obtain comments from the tribe and general public, BIA researchers prepare a recommendation and submit it to the BIA assistant secretary.

The assistant secretary decides whether to grant recognition.

If the decision is unfavorable, the petitioning tribe can appeal through the Interior Board of Indian Appeals or file suit in federal court.


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