Miwuk tribal members deliver message to Ferguson camp

Bill Leonard, Tribal Chair of the Southern Sierra Miwuk Tribe, sings an honor song for the fallen firefighters at a recent briefing on the Ferguson Fire. With him was Gary Walker, Tribal Chair of North Fork Rancheria of Mono Indians, and Dirk Charley and Pete Crowheart, Tribal Liaisions. #Fergusonfire CAL FIRE Madera-Mariposa-Merced Mariposa County Sheriff's Office U.S. Forest Service - Sierra National Forest U.S. Forest Service-Stanislaus National Forest Yosemite National Park Yosemite Fire and Aviation North Fork Rancheria

Posted by U.S. Forest Service - Sierra National Forest on Wednesday, August 1, 2018
Sierra National Forest on Facebook: Bill Leonard, Tribal Chair of the Southern Sierra Miwuk Tribe, sings an honor song for the fallen firefighters at a recent briefing on the Ferguson Fire

Trump administration issues first federal recognition decision

By Acee Agoyo

The Trump administration has issued its first federal recognition decision and the news isn't looking good for the Southern Sierra Miwuk Nation.

According to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the California-based tribe does not quality for federal acknowledgment. In a November 16 proposed finding, Tara Sweeney, who serves as the new Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs at the Department of the Interior, said the petitioning group failed to satisfy one of the key requirements for recognition.

Specifically, the tribe has not demonstrated that it has existed as a distinct community from historical times until the present, the decision states. There was little evidence to show how the group has interacted with one another, either through formal or informal events, according to the BIA.

"Evidence in the record shows involvement by some members of the petitioner in group activities, but not by a predominant portion of the membership," a notice published in the Federal Register on Friday reads. "Events sponsored by the formal organization are attended by some of the petitioner's members, but also by non-Indians and non-Miwok Indians (some of whom may be closely related to the petitioner but who are enrolled in federally recognized Tribes). Participation in these activities appears to include some members from various families, but it is unclear to what extent this participation represents a cross-section of the entire membership."

For that reason alone, the BIA's Office of Federal Acknowledgment (OFA) determined that it didn't need to evaluate whether the tribe met any of the other requirements for federal recognition. There are seven criteria in total and failing one is grounds for a negative decision.

"If during the evaluation of a petition on active consideration it becomes apparent that the petitioner fails on one criterion, or more, under the reasonable likelihood of the validity of the facts standard, OFA may prepare a proposed finding or final determination not to acknowledge the group on the failed criterion or criteria alone, setting forth the evidence, reasoning, and analyses that form the basis for the proposed decision," the BIA's 2008 guidelines state.

Youth participate in the Mariposa Butterfly Festival in Mariposa, California, to promote the Mariposa Powwow. The Southern Sierra Miwuk Nation hosts the powwow every year during Mother's Day Weekend in May. Photo: Steven Benes

The news isn't entirely all bad for the Southern Sierra Miwuk Nation, though. The tribe can submit additional evidence in hopes of convincing the BIA of its legitimacy before a final determination is issued.

"This PF is based on the evidence currently in the record," the proposed finding states. "Additional evidence may be submitted during the comment period that follows publication of this finding. New evidence provided during the comment period may result in a modification or reversal of the conclusions reached in the PF."

Some tribes have been able to reverse a negative proposed finding by bolstering their petitions. The Mohegan Tribe, based in Connecticut, was able to do that in 1994, after spending almost five years gathering more documentation of its status.

But the federal acknowledgment process has not been kind to those from California. Since the BIA began its regulatory reviews in 1978, only one petitioner from the Golden State -- the Timbisha Shoshone Tribe, whose leaders are still struggling to build a land base -- has secured recognition.

In contrast, four tribes from California have been denied recognition in a state where treaties with the United States were suppressed in the nation's capital. According to the BIA's proposed finding, ancestors of the Southern Sierra Miwuk Nation signed both the Camp Fremont Treaty and the Camp Barbour Treaty.

Had the government-to-government agreements been ratified, the tribe might not be in its current predicament. But even those that were able to secure federal status later fell victim to the termination era, when more than 40 in California alone lost their recognition.

The Southern Sierra Miwuk Nation is also known as the American Indian Council of Mariposa County. The tribe submitted its petition for federal recognition in 1982 but didn't complete its documentation until 1998, according to the proposed finding.

From then, it took the BIA another 12 years to place the tribe under "active consideration," when a team of researchers was assigned to the petition in 2010. The process was drawn out for several more years while the tribe addressed a number of technical issues, according to the decision.

The BIA is taking comments on the proposed finding until May 22, 2019. The tribe will be able to respond to any issues raised during the comment period.

The BIA's most recent proposed finding was issued in May 2016, during the Obama era. The Georgia Tribe of Eastern Cherokees did not qualify for federal recognition, according to the decision, which was finalized in December 2017.

Prior to that, the Pamunkey Tribe won a favorable determination for federal recognition. The decision was finalized in February 2016.

Federal Register Notice
Proposed Finding Against Federal Acknowledgment of the Southern Sierra Miwuk Nation (November 23, 2018)

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