Missouri Indigenous group fights for recognition


Members of the Rolla Cherokee group post the documents they compiled for their application to become a federally recognized tribe.

ROLLA, Missouri – The documents needed for Southern Cherokee to apply to become a federally recognized Native American tribe weighed 79 pounds. Members divided the forms into three boxes, posed for a photo, and shipped them to Washington for $ 105, plus $ 12.90 for a signature on delivery. Other materials, 26 boxes of genealogies and family trees, will follow soon.

“It’s going to open your eyes,” said Steve Matthews, frontman of the group.

Fifteen years ago, members of the Southern Cherokee Indian Tribe – the band’s official name – began researching their ancestors and heritage. Finally, after years of compiling documents, in early May of this year, the 484 band members reached the end of the first stage of the tribal recognition process.

Also called the recognition process, it determines who is or is not a Native American tribe in the eyes of the federal government. Granting tribal status gives a group access to federal funds, legal processes to obtain rights to land and water, tribal sovereignty or self-government, and the right to define what it means. ‘autochthony.

While there is no universally accepted view about federal recognition, the benefits include an immediate financial injection. Through the Office of Indian Affairs, the New Tribes program gives tribes with fewer than 1,700 members $ 160,000 per year for a three-year period.

If the Southern Cherokee received federal aid, Matthews said, they would use it to address health issues within the community and to fund heritage preservation and education. But unless they’re recognized by the federal government, they’ll never see a dime – and even under the new regulations, which came into effect on June 29, it could be years before that happens.

In Missouri, there are nearly 30,000 Native Americans and Alaska Natives, according to the 2010 census. Although some belong to federal and state-recognized tribes, none of these groups are legally headquartered. in Missouri. If their documents are approved, the South Cherokee Indian tribe could become the first. The only question is whether their story will stand up to scrutiny.

Hide history

Traces of the first peoples of Missouri are scattered throughout the state. Osage Beach, a town on Lake of the Ozarks, was named after the Osage Indians before they entered Oklahoma. Chillicothe, a town of 10,000 in northwest Missouri, now perhaps more famous as the home of sliced ​​bread, was named after the Shawnee, who had their own “chillicothe,” or large town, nearby. The name of the state itself is indebted to the Indians of Missouria.

Many Indigenous groups fear they will disappear without federal support, but the Rolla Group has stood their ground for decades without it. Fearing persecution from the state and the larger Cherokee nation in Oklahoma, with which it has long disagreements, the group’s ancestors met in secret in each other’s homes, Matthews said. Charles Wilcox, a hairstylist and member of the Southern Cherokee, said when he was young his mother would tell him and his siblings to hide whenever someone came home so unexpected. When he asked her how much Indian heritage he and his siblings had, she always replied, “just a little bit,” Wilcox said. “And she was pure blood.”

When Wilcox and Matthews’ generation decided to champion the cause of recognition, their parents didn’t like it. Some feared that just being a member of a tribe could mean they would all be resettled in Oklahoma.

Guidelines and reform

The majority of the 566 officially recognized tribes in the United States have never had to go through the recognition process. Their origins were established long ago through political decisions, lawsuits and treaties with the government. Those who have gone through the process have often found it, as the Southern Cherokees do, monumental, overwhelming, and expensive.

From 1978 when the Bureau of Indian Affairs implemented its previous standard, until this year when the new system was put in place, there have been 316 petitioners. Only 51 succeeded in completing the application, and only 17 were “recognized as an Indian tribe within the meaning of federal law”. The other 34 were refused. Even tribes with documented historical lineages took decades to be recognized: the Mashpee Wampanoag, who welcomed pilgrims to Massachusetts in 1620, waited 29 years before being federally recognized in 2007.

The new guidelines will make it easier to obtain recognition. According to the revised criteria, only 80 percent of the members of a group must be descendants of a historical tribe (instead of 100 percent); and only 30 percent need to maintain an active community (instead of a “predominant portion”). Tribes that have already been rejected will not be able to reiterate. Fortunately for the Southern Cherokee, the new standards will not force groups currently in the process to start over.

Not everyone is satisfied with the reforms. Some politicians fear an incursion of the casino industry if more petitioners are recognized. Then there are financial limits: the more tribes there are, the less the federal government can help each of them. Recognized tribes also fear diluting tribal sovereignty and the sense of being indigenous. Senior Chief Bill John Baker of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, for example, worries that groups with “soft citizenship requirements” will have an easier time becoming tribes. Baker, like many tribal chiefs, fears that impostor groups may undermine the power and legitimacy of established tribes.

We are neither better nor worse than the groups recognized by the federal government. We’re just different.

Robert Caldwell, of the Choctaw-Apache group

To assess applicants, the BIA uses a three-person team that includes a historian, a genealogist, and an anthropologist. To be recognized, a group must meet seven mandatory criteria, including the delicate condition that petitioners show that they have maintained community and political authority from 1900 to the present day. For this reason, approving the Southern Cherokee in Rolla can be difficult. There are three other “Southern Cherokee” petitioners in different states, and the BIA frowns on what it calls “splinter groups”.

The differences between the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and the Cherokee of the South, for example, are reflected in the records they use to assess members – preferring some records over others means favoring a specific interpretation of the past. For the Cherokee Nation, the Dawes Rolls, preserved from 1898 to 1914, are the most important. The signing of the rolls was necessary to receive an allotment of land during a period when the federal government was attempting to break up the reserves. Matthews is proud to say that members of the Southern Cherokee never joined the 101,000 Dawes signatories. Instead, the Southern Cherokee membership is based on the Tompkins Roll, an 1867 census of Cherokee living in Oklahoma, and the calling roles of Stand Watie, a Brigadier General of the War of Secession who is considered one of their founding leaders.

Yet these documents do not specify what makes a tribe and when exactly a new one is formed.

For example, several Southern Cherokee groups claim the 1834 Treaty of New Echota, which led to the Trail of Tears, as a founding document.

The treaty was signed by Major Ridge, a minority chief of the Cherokee tribe, under pressure from the federal government to sell Cherokee lands in what is now northwest Georgia and parts of southeast . The treaty deeply angered the Chief Cherokee chief, John Ross, and his supporters, who wanted to sell the land at a better price. This led to deep divisions between the groups, and after the two relocated to Oklahoma, members of the Ross Party began to attack the Ridge Party and assassinate some of its leaders. When the Civil War broke out, Stand Watie, a confidant of Ridge, formed a military regiment and fought for the South, hence the name of the Cherokee of the South. After the war, said Steve Matthews, some South Cherokee families moved to Missouri to escape the violence of the Ross Party.

The complexity of stories like this and the BIA’s reluctance to acknowledge them is why many Indigenous people are frustrated with what they see as a narrow process of recognition. “We are no better or worse than groups recognized by the federal government,” said Robert Caldwell, a member of the Choctaw-Apache in Ebarb, Louisiana, which has not been officially recognized by the federal government. “We’re just different. ”

Look ahead

The Rolla Cherokees hold meetings once a month at the Elks Lodge just south of town. On a cold February night, only one door was unlocked. It opened into a long, white room with a disco ball and drums on one end, and a mounted stag’s head on the other.

They spend a lot of time here examining birth and death records to trace the lineages of individual members back to their roles. Other documents – from letters to signatures in Bibles – are taken from the papers transmitted and from official deposits. The band’s diary, which Steve Matthews kept from 1976 to 2004, will also help establish their story, but the Rolla Cherokees will try to bolster their claims with whatever they can find relevant. No one knows if they have enough material.

With the first part of their application over, raising funds to send the other 26 boxes of genealogies and ancestral maps is now the biggest challenge. All this weight is expensive, but they hope to send it in about a month.

When asked what drives them, Steve Matthews replied, “We couldn’t tell our kids that we hadn’t tried. “


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