The federal government of the United States of America has given preliminary approval to “recognize” the Shinnecock Nation on Long Island. This approval clears the way for full federal recognition sometime in the spring by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), the governing body that oversees relations between the U.S. and the “recognized” Native American tribes within U.S. territory.
Various levels of federal assistance are available to those nations fortunate enough to be recognized by the U.S. government. The carrot dangled before native tribes in this country, of course, is the possibility of obtaining gaming licenses to operate casinos on tribal land or off-reservation land, which is typically held in trust by the government.
All of the attention over the matter obscures the fact that the whole concept of “federal recognition” is perhaps the biggest sham our country has ever fabricated.
If the U.S. government only now recognizes the Shinnecock as a tribe, then what were they before? When their land was stolen and their people were stripped of their dignity, were they not worthy of our recognition?
New York State, Suffolk County and Southampton town officials have joined in the chorus of vultures from federal agencies peering over their spectacles on the downtrodden nation of Shinnecock, gazing at them with both sympathy and disdain, and have finally welcomed them into the perverse brotherhood of sovereign North American nations. It’s a hollow victory that is a matter of survival, not of pride.
While these grinning politicians break their arms patting themselves on the back, the poorest inhabitants in America have had to swallow deep and present themselves, hat in hand, with court documents, proof of lineage, and ancient land claims to beg the government for a fraction of what was always rightfully theirs. The Shinnecock have sought recognition through the federal system for 30 years and only now that New York State has fallen upon hard times has the path been cleared by the BIA. Frankly, I find it abhorrent in every way. Every statement released by elected officials in New York and on the Island centers around the gaming issue. Every one. If there was ever a doubt as to why this process moved up the line the answer has come pouring out of both sides of every politician’s mouth.
For its part, the BIA uses recognition as a weapon to bestow or withhold basic human and civil rights on a people who have endured 400 years of humiliation and genocide. Yet recognition is a double-edged sword for both the tribe and America. While basic benefits and economic opportunity exist within the promise of recognition, evil lurks beneath the surface. Tribes have a greater ability to present land claims but may also be required to hold certain lands in federal trust. And while they may receive the right to operate gaming facilities on, and sometimes off, native territory, they are often required to pay taxes on all tribal enterprises and open their books. The slippery slope of recognition under the guise of partnership gives the government a foothold in territories they wish they never relinquished to native people; a foothold that may someday prove as fatal to Native Americans as inviting the fox into the henhouse.
When carefully managed, the other edge of the sword brings prosperity that can restore pride and foster cultural awareness within and among the tribes. It also makes them formidable members at the bargaining table, which is at times a source of frustration for U.S. officials who aren’t used to Native Americans having the wherewithal to exert economic and political influence. A highly organized tribe with economic means and determination also possesses a long institutional memory that the U.S. government does not.
I hope the Shinnecock gain the full recognition they seek. Then I hope they build the biggest and most ostentatious casino on the planet right smack in the middle of Shinnecock territory. An edifice so big and so bright it keeps the neighbors up at night and catches errant golf balls from the nearby golf courses that sit on land that was stolen from the Shinnecock Nation years ago.
The Shinnecock know who they are. They always have. Our government simply looks stupid granting them what they, and everyone else, already knew.