Saturday, August 31, 2013

Revisiting 1934 And Reversing 'Paper Genocide'

This past week I came across an article published by Michael Melia of the Associated Press that was both encouraging and disappointing. The story talks about the U.S. Interior Department’s attempt to overhaul the current rules in place for recognizing American Indian tribes (the draft is currently open for discussion until September 25th). However, by the second sentence, and I guess you could say it’s inevitable, the casino card is played as if it is the only reason why tribes desire federal recognition. Here is how the reporter opens the story:

His tribe once controlled huge swaths of what is now New York and Connecticut, but the shrunken reservation presided over by Alan Russell today hosts little more than four mostly dilapidated homes and a pair of rattlesnake dens.

The Schaghticoke Indian Tribe leader believes its fortunes may soon be improving. As the U.S. Interior Department overhauls its rules for recognizing American Indian tribes, a nod from the federal government appears within reach, potentially bolstering its claims to surrounding land and opening the door to a tribal-owned casino.

"It's the future generations we're fighting for," Russell said.

The rules floated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, intended to streamline the approval process, are seen by some as lowering the bar through changes such as one requiring that tribes demonstrate political continuity since 1934 and not "first contact" with European settlers. Across the country, the push is setting up battles with host communities and already recognized tribes who fear upheaval.

As a writer, I understand that you are trying to give the story a visual reference but the true basis of this argument can’t be in the material gains that potential changes could provide. The real reason is a recognized identity which has been withheld from countless people across the nation. The proposed changes recognize the governmental and regional neglect that has remained prevalent since this nation’s founding.

People who were marginalized and forced from their home and their land, encouraged to disband and sever ties with their native roots and join ‘the civilized world’ face a daunting task in establishing the existence of their own families across generations let alone the continuous continuity of their tribe. This is why the change in definition is needed. This is why the simple line in the “Procedures For Establishing That An American Indian Group Exists As An Indian Tribe” carries such great weight and the balance of that weight needs to be shifted to accommodate the historical burdens of segregation and persecution. Seeing this seemingly simple edit brings a touch of hopeful sweetness to the bitterness that has soured numerous attempts to be recognized. “Continuously or continuous means extending from first sustained contact with non-Indians throughout the group's history 1934 to the present substantially without interruption.”
It is a change that can help heal the history in a place such as Virginia where anti-Semitism and “The Racial Integrity Act” tried to erase not just the present American Indian population but the identities of Indian ancestors as well. It is a means to finally put an end to the work of Virginia’s longtime registrar at the commonwealth’s Bureau of Vital Statistics, Dr. Walter Ashby Plecker who wrote “...Like rats when you are not watching, [they] have been `sneaking’ in their birth certificates through their own midwives, giving either Indian or white racial classification.”

Supported by previous actions by Virginia’s government to force American Indians to register as free blacks in the 1850’s and 1860’s, Plecker’s eugenics based campaign continued to taint the identities of Indian children throughout the 20th century. While Virginia repealed its racial definition and segregation laws in 1975 it was still a time consuming and emotionally draining process for families to appeal decisions made at birth which misidentified their children robbing them of their ancestry. Further hindering federal recognition efforts is the fact that state recognition of Virginia based tribes did not come into existence until the 1980’s when only eight remained (including the Monacan Nation). 

Contrary to what many people in opposition of this amendment have decried, this is not a matter of land or casinos; this is about identity and ensuring the historical integrity of American Indian tribes survives. It is about recognition and resurrecting what was once excised from the historical record. It is an act that would allow us to say “We Exist!”