National | Federal Recognition

Mary Annette Pember: Shawnee tribes question 'hobby' Indians

Participants in a powwow at Fort Ancient Archeological Park in Ohio. Photo from Facebook

Mary Annette Pember reports on efforts by the Absentee Shawnee Tribe, the Eastern Shawnee Tribe and the Shawnee Tribe to prevent a questionable group in Illinois from claiming Shawnee ancestry:
“Playing Indian” is so common that most Native peoples have grown inured to the cringe-inducing spectacle of white folks doing ungainly dances at hobby powwows all over the world. Not all participants at these events claim Native ancestry – many just want to be Indian for a day.

There are more and more individuals and groups, however, claiming Native heritage in order to reap benefits, either professional or monetary. Many of these imposters also present themselves to the general public as authorities and spokespeople for Native peoples. These practices are a line in the sand for some Native people like Ben Barnes, Second Chief for the Shawnee tribe of Oklahoma and Tribal Historic Preservation Officer (THPO). He and representatives from other Oklahoma tribes are joining together and taking action.

Barnes and leaders from the three federally recognized Shawnee tribal governments all located in Oklahoma (the Shawnee, Absentee Shawnee and Eastern Band Shawnee, as well as the Miami tribe), traveled to Illinois in May to oppose a state bill that would have conferred state tribal recognition to the Vinyard Indian Settlement. The group, located in Herod, Illinois, claims to be Shawnee.

According to a story on the Daily Register newspaper website in Harrisburg, Illinois the legislation recognizing the Vinyard Settlement would have made the group eligible to receive resources from the federal government and state agencies. The group expected to use that funding to create an elder living center, a daycare center and make improvements to the surrounding environment.

Illinois State Representative Brandon Phelps, D-Harrisburg, introduced the bill into the Illinois House in February, where it passed unanimously and was headed to the Senate for what appeared to be easy passage until representatives from the Oklahoma tribes presented the legislature with historic documentation that called the Vinyard claims into serious question.

Tribal leaders from Oklahoma are hopeful that the bill will not resurface. “Groups like the Vinyard tribe take funding that is earmarked for genuine state and federally recognized tribes,” Barnes said. He also noted that states without federally recognized tribes have little experience in Native affairs and can easily fall victim to claims by hobby groups. “Some of the states are simply unaware of how to verify the claims made by these groups and are often misled.

Get the Story:
Mary Annette Pember: Black and Red and White Like Me: Natives Know Too Many Rachel Dolezals (Indian Country Today 6/19)

Pew Research Center Report:
Multiracial in America: Proud, Diverse and Growing in Numbers (June 2015)

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