La. tribes look to change in federal recognition rules

WASHINGTON The United Houma Nation Indian tribe and other southern Louisiana tribal groups are hopeful that possible rules changes in the federal recognition process will bring official validation and benefits their way.

While Louisiana has four federally recognized tribes, groups such as the United Houma Nation have tried and failed to win federal status for decades. As such, tribes such as the Pointe-Au-Chien Indian Tribe and the Biloxi-Chitimacha Confederation of Muskogees have splintered off from the Houma Nation but also have been unable to achieve federal recognition.

The Interior Department and its Bureau of Indian Affairs floated potential new rules to streamline the process this summer and held hearings in Louisiana, Oregon, California, Michigan and Maine.

“Having them look at it, it’s a good thing because for so long the system has been broken,” United Houma Nation Principal Chief Thomas Dardar Jr. said. “We feel pretty good about it.”

The potential rules changes could amount to lowering the burden of proof through changes such as one requiring that tribes demonstrate political continuity since 1934 and not “first contact” with European settlers, according to The Associated Press.

But Bureau of Indian Affairs spokeswoman Nedra Darling emphasized that the potential rules changes are only in a “discussion” period at this point.

“There’s been nothing going on other than to go out and consult … and getting input from” federally recognized tribes, nonfederally recognized tribes, state and local officials, and the general public, Darling said, adding that nothing has changed yet.

One issue for the United Houma Nation is that the tribe is spread out over several southern Louisiana parishes and arguably lacks a tight-knight core, which is a factor in the splinter tribes.

“We travel to each community and have meetings,” Dardar said.

“I have family on both sides,” he said of the splinter tribes.

Still, Dardar said the system is marred with bloated bureaucracy and has allowed for political influences to intervene. “Politics has been playing a pretty good part in it.”

First, there were land issues when Texaco dominated the area and there was a lot of pushback, he said. Then, the state’s federally recognized tribes began opening casinos and “gaming” became a major reason against other tribes gaining federal recognition.

The four federally recognized tribes are the Chitimacha in Charenton, the Coushatta in Elton and Kinder, the Jena Band of Choctaw Indians and the Tunica-Biloxi Indian Tribe in Marksville.

All four have casinos with the Jena Band opening one earlier this year in Dry Prong. The fights for American Indian casinos in Louisiana have involved lawsuits with the state and the Washington scandal of lobbyist Jack Abramoff that ruined careers.

While Dardar would not rule out eventually seeking to build a casino – “It’s too far in the future now” – he said the tribe’s priorities are about acquiring federal recognition in order to win fights over ownership of “Indian lands” and to gain new federal funding for education and health care needs.

Federal recognition, which has been granted to 566 tribes nationwide, is coveted because it brings increased health and education benefits to tribal members in addition to land protections and opportunities for commercial development.