Federal recognition turns tribes into competitors

EVERETT, Wash. (AP) - It's been more than a month since the Snoqualmie Indian Tribe opened its casino east of Seattle, in a prime area comparable to where the Tulalip Tribes recently added a luxury hotel to its gaming complex along I-5.

The Tulalip Tribes say they wish the Snoqualmies well, but they're competitors in the gambling industry.

Members of the two tribes are relatives. They're all descended from the same Indians who signed the 1855 Treaty of Point Elliott, handing over a fifth of what is now Washington state in exchange for medical care, education and other guarantees.

Like all families, tribes in Western Washington have squabbles. When the Snoqualmies in the 1970s asked the federal government to recognize them as a legitimate American Indian tribe, Tulalip leaders bitterly fought the petition.

Tulalip lawyers argued the Snoqualmies splintered from the Tulalip Tribes, and that most Snoqualmie Indians remain members of Tulalip. That argument failed. The Snoqualmies gained federal recognition in 1999. It took nearly a decade for the tribe to open the Snoqualmie Casino, which likely will help fund Snoqualmie tribal programs. Tulalip leaders say they no longer question the tribe's legitimacy.

"They're recognized and that's done," said John McCoy, general manager of Quil Ceda Village, the Tulalip Tribes' casino and resort complex. "There's no sense in retracing all that history."

Yet the Tulalip Tribes continue to oppose other groups of Indians who want federal recognition. Leaders of the Snohomish, the Duwamish, the Snoqualmoo and others say the Tulalips make it a priority to keep other tribes from getting federal money or opening casinos. Recognized tribes receive millions of dollars each year from the federal government to pay for education, health care, environmental work and other programs. They're also the only groups legally able to open Las Vegas-style casinos in most states.

Without opposition from the Tulalips, the Snohomish and other tribes could have a better shot at federal recognition and all the benefits it brings. That would mean less federal money to spread around to other tribes, and more competition for gamblers.

"It's pathetic, really pathetic," said Cecile Hansen, chairwoman of the Seattle-based Duwamish tribe, which has been fighting for recognition since the 1970s. Tulalip and Muckleshoot leaders have opposed the Duwamish, arguing that Hansen and others are descended from existing tribes.

"Any tribe that opposes another tribe through the process of acknowledgment, it's greed," Hansen said.

It began when federal agents legitimized certain Indians by recognizing them as local leaders, and ignoring others who should have been given a place at the negotiating table, Hansen said. Now, each tribe controls who can enroll as a member. The membership process often requires an Indian to prove a certain blood quantum, the percentage of bloodlines that traces directly back to tribal ancestors. Each tribe has its own criteria, and can bar anyone from seeking membership.

"Colonialism is a process that ends up pitting tribes against each other," said Bruce G. Miller, a professor at the University of British Columbia and author of "Invisible Indigenes," a book about nonrecognized tribes. "This is the way it is all over the aboriginal world. Even if they're of common descent, they end up being on opposite sides of these issues."

The Bureau of Indian Affairs presides over federal recognition cases. Tribes must prove that they have existed as a single political and cultural group since time immemorial, and that most members have never defected to another, recognized tribe. Evidence in recognition cases often includes antique membership lists and stories passed down from elders about tribal meetings held in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Opposing tribes respond with their own lists and stories. Arguments are focused on historic evidence: which tribe moved to which reservation, and whether certain groups are even Indian at all.

Tribes that don't succeed in their bid for recognition are left without any of the benefits promised to them in the treaties their ancestors signed with the federal government. They're treated as though they're extinct, said Jacqueline Johnson Pata, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that lobbies on behalf of tribes.

"For example, everyone knows there were tribes in Virginia; you can read about it in every history book," she said. "Yet those Virginia tribes are still seeking recognition."

More than half of Washington's tribes have been acknowledged as legitimate tribal governments since what is known as the "treaty era," the years in which federally appointed agents traveled throughout the Pacific Northwest to secure land through treaties with tribes. The rest have had to fight to prove their own legitimacy. For tribes in the northern Puget Sound region, that fight almost always has meant a faceoff with the Tulalip Tribes, which was created as a federation to represent dozens of tribes as one government.

"We've always opposed recognition (of other tribes) because we are the successors to those tribes," Tulalip Tribes Chairman Mel Sheldon said.

The Tulalip reservation was created in 1855 by the Treaty of Point Elliott, which also listed the tribes who were required by law to move there. The first problem with that plan was that the reservation land was already in use by certain communities, Miller said.

"If you're moving to a place that, for example, already belonged to the Swinomish, that could be seen as a violation," Miller said.

"They recognized that historically this was someone else's place, and there was tension around that."

Even today, ancient Indian names are given to certain tribal members when they reach adulthood. Those names are tied to certain geographic places, and the bearer of that name is a steward of that place, Miller said. An entire cultural system was shaken when the federal government began moving Indians around, but it was never forgotten.

"To some extent there's a reckoning of the names who ought to be speaking for a certain place," Miller said.

Federal officials didn't account for the fact that some tribes weren't on friendly terms, Miller said. Some tribal groups refused to move to the reservation because they didn't get along with families who lived there. Some saw the poverty that quickly surfaced on the reservation and chose to live elsewhere. Another fear was that Tulalip wasn't defensible against Tlingit Indians from Alaska, who periodically raided the region for slaves, said Michael Evans, chairman of the Snohomish Tribe, which is currently fighting for recognition.

"They would come down from the north up in Alaska and northern British Columbia," Evans said. "They would take heads and slaves back up with them. It was real, it was documented, and it happened even after settlers lived here."

Evans' Indian ancestor didn't move to the reservation because she married a white man. Mixed-race marriages weren't sanctioned at the time, so the couple moved to the Olympic Peninsula.

"No one in my family has ever lived on the reservation," Evans said.

Many Indians found jobs off-reservation. When they left, often at the urging of government officials who were supposed to "civilize" the Indians, they lost their share of government aid.

They couldn't have known that a decision to find a good job outside Indian Country - one that would pull their families out of poverty and fulfill what the federal government had asked of them - would ultimately become the reason their descendants are spurned not only by the government but also by other Indians.

The modern-day Tulalip government was formed in 1934, under the Indian Reorganization Act. Descendants of dozens of tribes were tossed together. The Indians who weren't living on the reservation at that time are among those who aren't recognized by the federal government today.

There are about 1,200 people on the Snohomish Tribe's register, Evans said. Most are people who would be Tulalip if their families had moved to, and remained at, the Tulalip reservation.

"The people on Tulalip claim that they are Snohomish, and the people off-reservation say, 'We're Snohomish,"' Evans said. "The truth is, they're both right."

The Tulalip Tribes have fought Evans' band of Snohomish Indians at every step on the road to federal recognition. The Snohomish recently filed an appeal, with hope that a judge will reconsider and give them the same courtesy given to Tulalip: formal acknowledgment, and the federal dollars that go with it.

Earngy Sandstrom, chairman of the Snoqualmoo Tribe based on Whidbey Island, said his group wants federal recognition simply as an acknowledgment that they haven't become extinct.

"Our tribe has no desire to build a casino," Sandstrom said. "We're just not into that stuff."

The Snoqualmoos maintain a "primitive" government, he said, based on family hierarchies and ancient traditions. That wouldn't change if they were federally recognized, he said.

The Tulalips have spent "hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years to oppose tribes," Sandstrom said. "It's greed."

The federal recognition process wasn't meant to work, Sandstrom said. Federal agents knew tribes would fight over "a piece of the pie," he said.

Federal recognition is crucial to a tribe's identity, and often brings money that helps pull Indians out of poverty. But whatever tribes get from the government today is a fraction of what they once had, Miller said.

"People think these cessions were made to the Indians," Miller said. "But they were the ones granting. These were wealthy people, with wonderful resources and magnificent buildings."

"And now, they're competing over pittances," he said.