The Searchers

Bob Brown always knew he was Indian. Now he wants the government to recognize his tribe.

As he crosses the main drag in the south metro hamlet of Mendota, Bob Brown pauses a moment. He's on his way to the weekly Dakota language class he teaches in the basement of the town's VFW, but he wants to point out a local landmark. Squinting in the bright sunlight, he pulls down the visor of his baseball cap, which is emblazoned "Protect Sacred Sites," and peers through the window of a tiny, two-cell jailhouse-turned-museum. "Some of my relatives worked as constables in Mendota, so I'm sure they spent some time here," Brown says. "And I'm sure some of my other relatives were on the other side of the bars occasionally, too," he adds wryly.

Today Mendota is a sleepy village housing 126 residents and few going concerns. But in the early 19th Century it was the center of territorial Minnesota's thriving fur industry. Built on the bluffs at the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers, Mendota was settled by French, then English and American traders. The new arrivals soon intermingled with the region's original inhabitants, the Mdewakanton Dakota, a branch of the eastern Sioux. Brown is a mixed-blood descendant of those early traders and the native Mdewakanton. While he now makes his home up the river in Champlin, he professes a close connection to Mendota and its history. "For my people, where the rivers come together was the center of the earth. This was Dakota land," he says. "It was always Dakota land."

Brown would like to see a chunk of Dakota land at the river's meeting place again. But the 59-year-old chairman of the Mendota Mdewakanton Dakota Community (MMDC), which has 280 adult members, is currently dealing with a more fundamental task. He is lobbying the federal government to recognize his group as a legitimate Indian tribe. And it hasn't been easy. "The perception is that we're just Johnny-come-latelies. Wannabes," Brown explains. "Because we don't have a reservation, or any trust land, we're looked at as if maybe we're not a tribe, but...just a bunch of people with some Dakota blood."

Against the current: Bob Brown, chairman of the Mendota Mdewakanton Dakota Community, has led the charge for federal recognition
Teddy Maki
Against the current: Bob Brown, chairman of the Mendota Mdewakanton Dakota Community, has led the charge for federal recognition

Under current federal law the task of recognizing Indian tribes is administered by the Bureau of Acknowledgment and Research (BAR), a branch of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). By statute BAR is charged with assisting tribes in preparing their applications, formally known as petitions. But in the view of critics, including some within the BIA itself, BAR has become hopelessly overwhelmed and inefficient--and nearly impossible for people like Brown to navigate without the help of consultants, lawyers, and historians. And those specialists are expensive, requiring the sort of money, critics claim, that only groups who manage to line up casino speculators can raise.

For the members of MMDC, the pay-to-play reality may well constitute the biggest hurdle in their quest for recognition. Most of the exhaustive genealogical and historical research required by BAR has been performed on a volunteer basis, because Brown's group has found no wealthy backers willing to gamble that the MMDC has a casino in its future. The MMDC did receive a $52,000 grant from the Department of Health and Human Services last fall, enough to rent a small office space next to the Mendota post office and pay a staff salary to Brown's wife, Linda. But since incorporating as a charity in 1996, the MMDC has scraped by largely on donations, raffles, and other small fundraising efforts.

"As far as research is concerned, $50,000 can disappear in a blink of an eye. This process can take 10, 20 years and cost as much as $2 million," says Christine Grabowski, a New York-based anthropologist whom the MMDC hired to help prepare the application to BAR. Additionally, she notes, BAR's criteria for recognition pose especially thorny problems for groups like the MMDC. Among other things, those seven requirements state that unrecognized tribes must have been "identified as an American Indian entity on a substantially continuous basis since 1900." The MMDC has been around for more than 100 years, but prior to its recent involvement in a high-profile protest of the rerouting of Highway 55 in south Minneapolis, the group has been largely invisible to outsiders.

"Having Indian ancestry is the minimum to play the game. Establishing a 'continuous group identity' over time is the tough part, especially for groups that have maintained a low profile, that have not walked around saying, 'We're Indian,'" Grabowski explains. "One of the criteria for unrecognized tribes is that they be identified by outsiders as a distinct group. But before the 1960s, a lot of Indians were told to hide because of the tremendous discrimination." Jim Anderson, the MMDC's cultural chairman and Bob Brown's nephew, says such attitudes linger to this day: "There's a lot of our relatives that don't want to have anything to do with us. They don't want to be considered Indian."

Brown hopes the MMDC can meet the continuous-group-identity standard by combing through the birth and marriage records at St. Peter's Catholic Church in Mendota. "These records show a community, an endless line of people intermarrying to the point where almost everyone in town was related," he says. "But whether we can convince the BAR that we remained a vital community is our number-one problem."

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