By Robert A. Williams, Jr.
At its annual meeting next week, the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) will consider removing state recognized tribal governments from its voting membership. This proposal comes amid an all-out, misguided assault on state recognized Tribes based on the asserted claim that they somehow threaten Tribal sovereignty.
This self-righteousness about who qualifies and who doesn’t qualify as Indigenous is all too familiar. This brand of identity-policing is based on the historically mistaken belief that there has been a foolproof, legitimate and consistent system developed by the United States as a colonizing government for recognizing the Tribal governments it believes it has successfully colonized. It ignores the colonial, post-colonial and neo-colonial impacts on Indigenous peoples who may not have been fortunate enough to be recognized with the stroke of the pen by a federal Indian affairs bureaucrat, or to have been participants in a federal court case, or to have been signatories to a treaty that Congress bothered to ratify but has never fully enforced or honored.
The proposal NCAI will entertain in New Orleans—that Tribal rights should be dictated and determined by a listing of select tribes made up by the federal government—is one of the highest and more efficient forms of colonization one can imagine; getting the “officially” colonized to do the dirty work of culling out and silencing the voices of those “unofficial” groups the colonizer doesn’t want to bother with.
NCAI was “established in 1944 in response to the termination and assimilation policies of the U.S. government.” According to Thomas W. Cowger’s book, The National Congress of American Indians: The Founding Years, the Indian Congress originally “stressed both civil and tribal rights by declaring that the common welfare of Native Americans required the preservation of cultural values.” The organization has drifted far from its original instructions.
In 1978, NCAI convened its historic National Conference on Tribal Recognition, unanimously adopting a Declaration of twelve principles, proclaiming that “as an organization that represents the common interest of all tribes,” NCAI demands that the United States “fulfill its obligation to all tribes . . . and acknowledge the existence” of non-federally recognized Tribal governments. That proclamation aligns with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), including its affirmation of the right to “distinct political, legal, economic, social and cultural institutions” and related “constructive arrangements” with nation-states.
But as NCAI heads into its annual meeting highlighting its 80 years of existence, the organization seems to be forgetting its origin, mission, and purpose. The organization that educates about the perils of assimilation and termination is now poised to support – and lead – the eradication of state recognized Tribes. The organization that demands that federal and state governments respect and honor Tribal governmental decisions now seeks to ignore the decisions made by state governments about who is recognized as a Tribe within its borders. The organization that purports to champion Indigenous human rights across the world is now poised to undermine the letter and spirit of UNDRIP here in the United States.
The organization that was founded based on unity is now seeking to remove as many as 24 bona fide state recognized Tribes that are NCAI members in good standing. This is happening while NCAI’s membership has plummeted from 270 member Tribes as of a couple years ago, to 145 Tribes today. Instead of spending time amassing strength in numbers in order to advocate against real threats to Tribal sovereignty in Congress and the courts, NCAI is dividing and conquering itself—and Indian country writ large. Again, the colonizer couldn’t be more pleased by its efforts.
NCAI has lost its way – it is culturally, spiritually and historically unmoored. If state recognized Tribes are ejected from NCAI by the self-appointed identity police faction, who will be next? Urban Indians? Descendants of multiple Tribes who cannot enroll in one? Adopted Indians? Tribes with small land bases? Tribes without casinos?
If this proposal succeeds, NCAI will have assumed the mantle of colonizer, without the colonizer even asking for the favor. The organization will help achieve what Indigenous peoples have fought against since first contact: assimilation, extinguishment, termination; tribe by tribe, Indian by Indian, until there are none of us left.
Robert A. Williams, Jr. is Regents Professor, E. Thomas Sullivan Professor of Law and Faculty Chair of the University of Arizona Indigenous Peoples Law and Policy Program. He belongs to the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina and is the 2017 recipient of the Lawrence R. Baca Lifetime Achievement Award for Excellence in Federal Indian Law presented by the Federal Bar Association Indian Law Section.