The Difficulty of Splinter Groups and Federal Recognition

Duane Champagne

A heartbreaking issue is the definition, understanding, and use of splinter groups. In some Office of Federal Acknowledgement decisions, however, the comments by splinter groups are given significant weight, and are used as contributing evidence to making decisions and denying petitioners the right to federal recognition. The suggested revised regulation reads that the OFA will: “Notify any other recognized tribe or petitioner that appears to have a historical or present relationship with the petitioner or that may otherwise be consider to have a potential interest in the acknowledgment determination.”

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A difficulty with the current and suggested new recognition regulations is that there is no clear definition of splinter groups. OFA does not conduct any significant investigation into the background, history, or culture of so-called splinter groups.

Furthermore, there is a misreading of political identities among the petitioning groups. For example, in California there is a famous linguistic map produced by Albert Kroeber, the famous anthropologist of California Indians that reflects linguistic boundaries, but not political boundaries or identities. Indian groups like the Pomo, Chumash, Ohlone, and others share some base language, but usually speak in several different dialects. As Kroeber also argues, the main political units among California Indians are villages formed by extended matrilineal or patrilineal lineages. One cannot and should not argue that a common language creates a common political identity or locality.

In California, and elsewhere, tribal political identities are determined more by kinship and village alliances than language. Consequently, there is no Chumash Nation including all Chumash villages-lineages, or a Pomo Nation including all Pomo villages and kinship groups. The OFA ruled on the petition of the Muwekma Ohlone, and to a significant extent determined that the Muwekma group was one group among several, therefore did not represent the entire Ohlone Nation. OFA required the Ohlone to form a nation and a national government, when the Ohlone were never organized is such a centralized fashion. The Ohlone, Chumash, Pomo, and others often have decentralized primary political identities and organization, as Kroeber and California anthropology upholds. Identifying other political subgroups within a linguistic group, and requiring the petitioners to advance forms of centralized political organization that never existed, is to doom the chances of a large number of legitimate petitioners.

Splinter groups should not be defined as disaffected individuals or factions, or members of similar linguistic groups. There is normal conflict and competition in every human group or society, and the same for Indian tribe. When a group shares common cultural rules and political identity, then conflict and competition within the rules is “normal conflict,” since everyone is playing according to the rules, norms, or “constitution.” A splinter should be defined as a group that separates from a community that shared common territory, political identity, language, and ceremonial traditions.

Splinter groups arise when a polity or political community cannot maintain a consensus or shared rules among its members. The break down of shared political identity and political rules creates internal conflict over the rules of order, and political leadership that is not in conformance with traditional or accepted political protocols and order. There are always people in every human society who do not like the existing state of affairs or system of rules. The issue is to what extent is there dissension and lack of commitment to the rules. A small minority group of dissenters should not be given status as a splinter group. If the large majority of a political community adheres to its rules, the presence of small splinter groups is not a significant threat or a serious effect on the continuity and identity of the main political community. If splinter groups are roughly of equal size and there are no mechanisms for withdrawal to reform as separate political entities, then a political group may be said to have splintered, and political identification, is difficult between the two or more dissenting groups.

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