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24.11.03

Members Out, Casino In

Quest For Federal Recognition Pits Nipmuc Against Nipmuc

... Identical letters [to the one telling Ginger Wood she was no longer a member of the Nipmuc tribe] went out during the summer to 1,073 others who, like Wood, say they are Nipmuc. In one stroke, the tribal government lopped off two-thirds of the tribe's family. The purged members, leaders say, could not prove they are who they say they are, genealogically speaking.

... The purge is rooted in the Nipmuc Nation's long quest for recognition by the federal government as a sovereign tribe. To secure that status, members must show the Bureau of Indian Affairs that all are descendents of the historical tribe, and that they continue to operate politically as a tribe.

Federal recognition is the most important hurdle the Nipmuc must clear en route to their goal of opening a large casino in central Massachusetts or northeast Connecticut. Such a designation is required before the government will allow gaming on tribal lands.


My first reaction to this story was that it was an illustration of the dirty politics that surrounds casinos. It reminded me of accusations that the Oneidas cut members who opposed Turning Stone from their rolls. Then I caught on to two key elements: first, the tribe seemingly has nothing personal against the people who were rejected, it's just that they don't have adequate documentation of their ancestry. Second, the immediate concern is not the casino, but federal recognition. True, the push for federal recognition is driven by the desire for a casino. If the Nipmuc leadership didn't want a casino, it would likely have been content to remain recognized only by the state, and people like Wood would be able to remain in.

A portion of the blame must, however, go to the BIA and its rules for tribal recognition. It's those standards against which Wood failed to measure up, and which presented the tribe with the choice of cutting members or giving up on a casino. Yet federal recognition is more than just a stepping stone to a casino. It's a crucial marker of tribal status and sovereignty.

It's problematic to demand formal paperwork from marginalized segments of society. Even when they are not overtly shut out of the official system, their lives are often of necessity organized in ways that aren't documented or documentable in the terms accepted by the wider society. This seems especially difficult for eastern tribes. Because the east was colonized sooner and more thickly, there has been a longer period of cultural and social forces tearing at the integrity of tribes. Some, like the Haudenosaunee, got lucky -- their political power allowed them to gain recognition from the fledgling USA at a time when their status was closer to what Indians in the west had in the late 19th century. Others -- like the Nipmuc, whose land was the site of one of the first white population booms -- weren't so lucky. This makes it more difficult to reconstitute a tribal organization and get the paperwork together to get recognized.

On the other hand, relaxing the formal standards for membership in a tribe brings its own problems. Particularly as advantages to tribal membership grow, there will be people who unfairly want in, and those people are less easily deterred when standards are lax. Further, the tribe may have incentives to inflate its membership.

Simply handing the decision over to the tribe has a certain appeal. One big hangup for these sort of inter-cultural relations is that you generally find the more powerful side able to define the terms of the relationship. The tribe has to prove its validity by the Euro-American standards of the federal government. There have been great intra-tribal conflicts when the federal government insisted on working through a Euro-American style tribal government despite the existence of a traditional indigenous governance structure. It's tempting to say that it should be the tribe's own standards that apply, or some combination of the two that would prevent unscrupulous tribes or pseudo-tribes from scamming the government. This would help with the inter-cultural question, but it has the possibility of simply reproducing the power assymetry on an intra-tribal scale. Any organization, including a tribe, will have an elite holding power. The lack of structural incentives (such as the promise of a casino plus the stringent geneology requirements) may alter the shape and degree of abuse of that power. But it can't eliminate it. So long as there are advantages to be gained from official status, it is necessary to remain vigilant against those who decide on that status.

I wrote a paper for my Aboriginal Studies class a few years ago that had some slightly more developed thoughts on this general topic.

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