The 3 Rs: Reservations, Revisionism and Rhetoric
“…the guys on the real reservations have no concern about federal recognition. They already have it.”
As opposed to what, “fake” reservations?
On June 28, this statement was e-mailed by Dr. Richard Allen, policy analyst for and tribal member of the non-reservation based Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and a co-founder of the now-defunct Cherokee Task Force, which was formerly tasked with attacking “non-federal” tribes before infighting and political considerations crumbled the organization. His e-mail was in response to some political cartoons that had been directed at his group by a college student and exposes the ironies of their organization.
In contrast to Allen’s viewpoint, Leech Lake Ojibwa professor David Treuer writes in his new book, Rez Life: An Indian’s Journey Through Reservation Life, “Some Indians don’t have reservations, but all reservations have Indians….”
Despite the close association Indians and reservations have with one another in the persona of both Indian Country and the mainstream of America, most are unaware that most of the nation’s oldest Indian reservations are occupied by state-recognized tribes, not ones recognized by the federal government. In 1658 reservations were established for the Pamunkey and Mattaponi in Virginia by agreements with the British Crown. The year 1680 marked the beginning of the Paugussett tribe’s reservation, followed by the Nipmuc’s Hassanamisco Reservation. Hassanamisco was divided up between 1727 and 1730, yet lineal descent families, nearly 300 years later, have been able to retain a small piece of the original reservation. The Lantern Hill reservation in Connecticut was founded for the Eastern Pequot tribe shortly after the Nipmuc reservation in 1683. The Mashantucket Pequot also reside on a reservation created during the period and now are federally recognized, which according to quote number one of this article would make them a part of the “real” reservation system. The same has occurred with the Poospatuck reservation developed for the Unkechaug Nation on Long Island, New York in 1700. The Shinnecock also live on their historic reservation just down the road. Their reservation was of course “fake” until they were federally recognized as a tribe in 2010; never mind that they have resided their since their reservation’s inception. Not to be outdone, the Watuppa Reservation was established for the Wampanoag Tribe in 1709 and its primary caretaker is the state-recognized Pocasset Wampanoag Tribe, which continues to use it for subsistence and ceremonial activities.
The Schaghticoke Tribe’s reservation was founded in 1736, and was “real” from 2002 to 2005 when they, along with the Eastern Pequot, were federally recognized. After and before having their federal status terminated, one can only assume that these lands which they have inhabited for many generations (if we don’t even consider their habitation in this general area prior to the reservation system), were and are “fake.”
In 1982, the State of Alabama took lands into state trust and designated them a reservation on behalf of the MOWA Choctaw. These lands have been occupied prior to and after the Choctaw and other Indian removals of the 1800’s by the ancestors of the MOWA Choctaw who were deemed squatters until a state university deemed “official” title holder, returned them to their rightful owners at a price which can only be considered as a donation.
Aside from these tribes in the East and South are other communities of “non-federal” Indian people who hold onto their traditional lands in the West with some being designated as reservations and rancherias.
Though certainly not necessary for recognition as an Indian community, reservations are impossible to dismiss in light of federal definitions of “continuous Indian existence.” Admittedly, the federal definition is an ever changing and hypocritical set of rules, expectations, and ironies that have little relationship to actual Indian community cohesion, history, cultural retention, and regional difference. A few politically and monetarily connected individuals, tribes, and organizations intent on dismissing and silencing the collective histories and contemporary realities of reservation based “non-federal” Indian communities, epitomizes the terms revisionism and rhetoric.
It seems that some of these federal politically motivated groups have only recently acquired lands which have now been placed into federal trust as reservations or are those whose reservations were simply provided to them by private white land owners with strong political connections (see Qualla Boundary; Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians). Even with these contradictions, they aim their hostilities at those who are the grandfathers and grandmothers of the reservation system and who have maintained their lands through every conceivable prejudicial and underhanded means of taking them away.
It seems like a big helping of federal “recognition” and a side order of justice are in order, so someone tell Dr. Allen and his Aunt B.I.A. that we are coming over to take a seat at their dinner table. And there is no need for concern—we have reservations.
Cedric Sunray is an enrolled member of the MOWA Band of Choctaw Indians (at least for now) and of Scottish, Choctaw, and Cherokee ancestry.