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."

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

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."

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."

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."

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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