The Searchers

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

BAR's recent track record provides little reason for optimism. Since 1978, when BAR was created, 221 groups have sought recognition. Of those, just 72 managed to complete their applications and only 18 have been formally recognized. The others? Most are still waiting. In an appearance before the U.S. Senate in May, Kevin Gover, the assistant secretary of the Department of the Interior and head of the BIA, estimated that it would take 50 years to process the backlog of applicants at the bureau. Gover also acknowledged that the pace is being slowed further by the corrupting effects of money. "I am very concerned with the effect that money is having on this process, on the fact that certain petitioners are backed by an enormous amount of money that can obscure rather than assist us in finding what the truth is. I am concerned [whether] those petitioners who do not have that sort of financial backing will ever find justice in a process that is becoming increasingly difficult, expensive, and lengthy."

Grabowski says that unrecognized groups often face another barrier: opposition from existing tribes who view the newcomers as a threat to lucrative gaming operations. With money to burn, she explains, existing tribes often act as interveners in the approval process, vigorously challenging the historical and genealogical findings of their kin: "They have the money and the personnel to pay for it, and they do it in some really sneaky ways. For example, one common tactic is for a tribe to parcel out their legal work to a whole host of legal firms, thereby conflicting out the topnotch professionals, so that the unrecognized tribes have nobody to hire. That happens all the time."

According to Brown the MMDC has received encouragement from some Native American spiritual and political leaders--mostly in connection with its campaign to protect sacred Dakota sites from the Highway 55 project in Minneapolis. But he says none of the tribal governments from the other Dakota communities in Minnesota have offered formal support. And efforts to contact other recently recognized tribes have not yielded fruit. "I would like nothing more than to sit down and compare notes, but they just seem to clam up," Brown says. "Maybe [the BIA] tells them not to talk to anybody else. It may be foolish thinking on my part, but that's the way it looks."

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

In 1994 Brown and some of his family even tried to join the Mdewakanton Sioux Community in Shakopee, which already counts some of their other relatives among its members. "We went out there pretty naive, thinking they'd be looking for us," Brown says. "They told us we should start our own community." As to the efforts of MMDC to seek federal acknowledgment, William Hardacker, the staff council at Shakopee, is circumspect. "The business council has no comment on the nonrecognized group known as the Mendota Mdewakanton group," he says.

As Brown tells it, much of his people's history was lost after the Sioux uprising of 1862. Although most of the Dakota people were banished from the state, Brown says his ancestors ("friendlies" who hadn't participated in the uprising) remained behind. When other Dakotas returned to the region, the federal government purchased land for them. Proposals to provide for the Dakotas of Mendota fell by the wayside and Brown's forebears became increasingly assimilated.

That's not say to say Brown's ilk forgot their origins. In fact the chairman's own sense of native heritage has grown in recent years. Around the time he attempted to enroll at Shakopee, he learned the story of the death of his grandfather, who farmed on federal trust land in Prior Lake. It was the winter of 1941, and his grandfather had been in an automobile accident. The local hospitals refused to admit him because he was an Indian. After a four-day trip to an Indian hospital in Pipestone, Brown says, his grandfather died of a fractured skull and pneumonia. "I only learned about that a few years ago, and the first couple of times I told it, I couldn't get through it without crying," he says. "It made a whole lot of difference in my life. I knew who I was and who my people were and what I have to do."

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