Tribes Renew Efforts To Win Federal Recognition

fromWPR

Correction Nov. 5, 2009

An early version of this story said that Barack Obama is an American citizen because his mother was an American citizen. Obama is an American citizen because he was born on American soil.

President Obama meets with hundreds of Native American leaders when he hosts the White House Tribal Nations Conference Thursday. The event is for federally recognized tribes. With that recognition, tribes are eligible for economic assistance, land, housing grants and other government benefits. The Brothertown Indians of Wisconsin had their application for formal recognition rejected, but they are appealing.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

President Obama is meeting today with hundreds of Native American leaders. They are in Washington for the White House Tribal Nations Conference and they represent the 564 federally-recognized tribes. There are hundreds more Native American groups hoping to win federal recognition, including the Brothertown Indians of Wisconsin. They have the distinction of being the first applicants to be reviewed and rejected under the Obama administration. Wisconsin Public Radio's Brian Bull has their story.

BRIAN BULL: The Brothertown Indians are made up of several tribes that were relocated to Wisconsin by the federal government in the 1800s. Their storefront's office is in downtown Fond du Lac. Tribal Chair Richard Schadewald says it's a modest headquarters for a group that figures so prominently in Wisconsin history.

Mr. RICHARD SCHADEWALD (Brothertown Indians): We built the first church in Wisconsin. Another part of our history that we're very proud of is we built the first sawmill on the eastern side of Lake Winnebago. We're an independent group and we've always been that way, trying to make it on our own. We've never relied on others.

BULL: But the 3,300 Brothertown Indians are now relying on the federal government for recognition. Their petition was rejected in August, a full 30 years after it was filed with the Office of Federal Acknowledgement. Schadewald says had OFA approved them, he'd be at the White House today with other leaders from recognized tribes.

Mr. SCHADEWALD: And I'm hoping Obama invites me for a beer so we can discuss this man-to-man.

BULL: Wisconsin has 11 official tribes. They have treaty rights and gaming. And every year they go to the legislature to present their State of the Tribes Address.

That the Brothertown Indians want to be part of this too doesn't surprise Richard Monette. He teaches Native American law at the University of Wisconsin.

Professor RICHARD MONETTE (University of Wisconsin): Of course it's a matter of time when they want their first casino. And it's a matter of time when they want their first hospital and they want their first school and they want their first roads and they want their first ability to teach their children their history.

BULL: But first, the Brothertown Tribe needs to meet OFA's criteria, things like demonstrating political influence over tribal members and showing that they've existed as a tribe since 1900. One roadblock, though, is that a tribe can't qualify if Congress terminated its federal status. OFA argues that in 1839 Brothertown members agree to swap their tribal status in return for keeping individual titles to their land.

Ms. ADA DEER(ph) (Menominee Tribe): If they are terminated by an act of Congress, they must be restored by an act of Congress.

BULL: If anyone knows what it's like to lose federal status, it's Ada Deer. The Menominee elder recalls when Congress ended her tribe's status as part of a termination policy in the 1950s. She says it took more than a decade of help from the Native American Rights Fund, Senator Ted Kennedy, and other allies to restore the Menominee's status.

Ms. DEER: Why was it important? To save our land and people, because if we hadn't done that, we would be on the outside looking in.

BULL: But Brothertown's Richard Schadewald says his tribe will appeal the ruling rather than seek a congressional solution. He cites a 1992 letter from the solicitor general stating that the tribe's status was never terminated.

Mr. SCHADEWALD: We traced lineal descent from both fathers and mothers. And they turned it against us to say that only your fathers counted for descendency.

BULL: The Brothertown will soon meet with Bureaus of Indian Affairs officials to appeal their rejection for federal recognition. Meanwhile, the Senate's Indian Affairs committee is reviewing the entire acknowledgement process to see if there are fixes to be made.

For NPR News, I'm Brian Bull.

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