PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – Critical protections for historic tribal communities now hang in the balance as their future representation remains uncertain.
Members of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) are set to vote on a constitutional amendment that could remove voting membership status for 24 state-recognized tribes.
Chairman Tony Johnson with the Chinook Indian Nation said his community would be among those prevented from being members.
“To not be members would both be an insult, but also would prevent us from accessing some of those protections,” he said.
Despite living at the mouth of the Columbia River since time immemorial, Johnson said the Chinook has been fighting for federal recognition for more than a century. They were formally recognized by the Clinton administration 20 years ago, only to have that rescinded just 18 months later by the Bush administration.
“Tribes federally recognized today: 75% of them were not recognized when I was born in Oregon, 25% of Washington’s tribes were not recognized,” Johnson said. “No one would argue that those folks shouldn’t have been members of NCAI.”
According to the proposal, the changes would update membership rules to exclude all tribes who are not federally recognized. Those who worked to draft the amendment, like Chief Ben Barnes of the Shawnee Tribe, are arguing the changes would combat ongoing fraud and cultural appropriation.
In a social media post on Monday, Barnes said:
“There are groups from each and every state with no Native ancestry masquerading as tribes and stealing the cultures, languages, and histories of tribes with treaty and/or trust relations with the United States…The amendments proposed by the Shawnee Tribe and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians seek to combat this fraud, and over 150 tribes across the United States support the proposed amendments.”
Johnson says Barnes’ concerns are a regional issue that don’t impact the Pacific Northwest, but could still harm local groups like the Chinook.
“Just use the rules that exist to weed out bad actors or, if an amendment is required, use a scalpel,” he said. “This idea of just blowing up every tribe that is not on the list of federally recognized tribes today is asinine.”
Johnson added that the United States is not the example sovereign communities should use to recognize their peers.
“An amendment that says, ‘only federally recognized tribes’…to me that implies the United States government gives you sovereignty. That cannot be true,” Johnson said. “That is not the way that we were taught, it’s not the way that we believe, and it’s certainly not the way we will ever act.”