Brian Buchanan, chief of the Miami Nation of Indians of Indiana, hopes his 86-year-old father lives long enough to see the state formally acknowledge the existence of his tribe. Buchanan has an ally in Sen. Randy Head, R-Logansport, who has filed legislation – Senate Bill 2 – that would offer the Miami state recognition.
Head introduced similar legislation in 2011, but the bill died in committee and was never assigned to a summer study committee. Both Head and Buchanan said the bill failed because some lawmakers mistakenly assumed that state recognition would allow the Miami to build a casino. Only federally recognized tribes that meet certain conditions may build casinos, and Buchanan wants to make sure legislators are aware of that.
“We’ve tried to penetrate the political atmosphere by giving them mailers and passing out information and showing them the difference, but they’ve got this mentality that the Miami want a casino,” Buchanan said. “Even if we did have federal recognition, this tribe would never go for that. We’ve seen too many tribes self-destruct.”
In 1980, Indiana’s Miami tribe petitioned the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs for federal recognition. More than a decade later, in 1992, the BIA rejected the tribe’s application for failure to meet all requirements for recognition.
The BIA’s decision was published in the Federal Register, Vol. 57, No. 118 (June 18, 1992), and explained that the Miami had not met two requirements outlined in the Code of Federal Regulations, Title 25, Part 83. The BIA said the Miami Nation of Indiana failed to maintain political influence over its members as an autonomous entity through the present day. The BIA also stated that while the Miami of Indiana had “continuously from early historic times until at least the 1940’s” met the definition of a distinct community with significant interaction, it had failed to prove that tribe members had maintained that community.
Indiana Miami tribal leaders appealed that decision, but the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in 2001 affirmed the BIA determination in Miami Nation of Indians of Indiana Inc. v. United States Department of the Interior, 255 F.3d 342 (7th Cir. 2001). Once denied, a tribe may not reapply for federal recognition, although an act of Congress may grant tribal recognition.
The late Jim Jontz, D-Ind., introduced a House resolution in the 102nd Congress that would have made the Miami tribe of Indiana federally recognized, but the resolution did not advance beyond committee.
W. Brent Gill, litigation manager at Ken Nunn Law Office in Bloomington and chief justice of the Southern Cherokee Nation, called it a “slap in the face” that tribes even have to apply for federal recognition.
“You find people like the Miami all over the U.S. They are remnants of tribes that have been torn asunder to begin with,” Gill said. “If it wasn’t for the federal government, we wouldn’t be in this position to begin with.”
Head said that during the 1800s, many Miami were forced to move west, eventually settling in what is now Oklahoma. The Miami Tribe of Oklahoma is federally recognized. Head said the Miami Nation of Indiana has only one goal.
“What they’re asking for is a simple recognition of the historical truth,” he said.
What recognition does
“When you look at the tribe and you put everybody in a big pot, you realize there’s going to be a lot of folks that fall into the same category as myself – I have a good job, I’m an engineer … but there are people that are not in my position,” Buchanan said. He said that as of a few years ago, about 90 federal programs existed that would allow members of a state-recognized tribe some federal benefits, including educational and health care assistance, along with care for the elderly.
Nell Jessup Newton, Joseph A. Matson Dean at the University of Notre Dame Law School, said that only artists who are members of state-recognized or federally recognized tribes are eligible to sell work that is designated as “Indian,” under the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990. She said other benefits may be extended to members of state-recognized tribes, too.
“If an applicant to a college or university is a member of a state-recognized tribe, that might help them being accepted,” she said.
Some scholarships that offer preference to Native American candidates require only that the applicant be on a tribal membership roll, but many require students to be members of tribes recognized by the federal or state government.
Gill explained that even federally recognized tribes are not automatically entitled to benefits.
“A lot of people seek federal recognition for different things – some for federal benefits – but many of the benefits that federally recognized tribes have depend on the treaties they have with the federal government,” Gill said. He said that the Southern Cherokee Nation, for example, is recognized by way of an old treaty, but it is not technically a federally recognized tribe.
Buchanan said the Indiana Miami number about 6,000 across more than 60 Indiana counties, with about 2,500 members living out-of-state. “The community is coming together a lot better than what it used to be 20 years ago,” he said. And part of that renewed sense of community includes working together to push for recognition.
The Indiana Miami have been networking with city leaders throughout the state, trying to generate support, Buchanan said. Last year, the cities of Peru and Wabash issued proclamations recognizing the tribe – a symbolic gesture, but one that means a lot to Buchanan.
“It just says, hey have you ever heard of us? Yeah, we have,” Buchanan said of the city proclamations.
Gill said that being Indian is more than simply carrying a Certificate of Indian Blood card that proves one’s ancestry.
“You’ve got a group of people here in Indiana that don’t have a card to prove they’re Indian, that are as much or more Indian as a tribe in Oklahoma or wherever,” he said. “They have many people that are trying to protect their history, culture and tradition – that’s what it means to be an Indian.”
Buchanan said he was upset in 2011 when Senate President Pro Tempore David Long, R-Fort Wayne, did not assign Head’s bill to a summer study committee. Asked if he could comment on why the bill was not assigned to an interim committee, Long issued a statement saying, “As promised, Senate Bill 2 has been assigned to committee. I look forward to thoughtful discussion from my colleagues and thank Sen. Head for his hard work on this important issue.”•