Ben Barnes
Ben Barnes. Photo courtesy of the Shawnee Tribe
Appreciating and Protecting Federal Native Recognition
By Chief Ben Barnes
Shawnee Tribe

Groups claiming to be tribal sovereigns has reached a new level of concern for the Shawnee Tribe and other tribal nations.

The Shawnee Tribe has a long, proven, and unbroken history. Although the U.S. government forced us to operate within the confines of the Cherokee Nation, our government never ceased to exist. That is why, 21 years ago, Congress acknowledged our sovereignty and restored our government-to-government relationship with the United States.

In 1869, the United States rejected treaties with the Shawnee and Delaware Tribes, establishing reservations for them in what is now Oklahoma. Both nations were forced to accept allotments with the Cherokee Nation, an ally of the Confederate States of America, even though the Shawnees and Delawares loyally served the Union during the Civil War. This recognition afforded us rights and identification as Native Americans but robbed us of our national government.

Not all groups that request federal recognition have histories as clear-cut as ours. As a native nation that had its sovereignty taken away for 130 years, we appreciate the rigorous process the United States now undertakes to honor its treaty obligations with Indigenous nations.

The Office of Federal Acknowledgment process created at the Department of Interior over 40 years ago compels tribes seeking federal acknowledgment to demonstrate that a formal, treaty relationship exists between them and the United States. This process offers tools and experts to understand Native histories, ensuring that tribes are rightfully recognized while protecting them from illegitimate claims that would undermine sovereignty.

While Congress did the right thing by federally recognizing our tribe, it can do demonstrable harm to all federally recognized native nations if it circumvents the Office of Federal Acknowledgment process and recognizes outside groups with questionable histories through congressional approval.

There are currently 36 unestablished Shawnee “tribes” operating as 501(c)(3) non-profits across the country. Their 501(c)(3) designations allow them to solicit donations and participate in grants meant for Tribal nations. They pose as spokespeople for our ancestors at historic sites, state historical societies, and university campuses causing significant harm to our identity, culture, and reputation. These groups are violating the sacred, ancient places of our ancestors. They perform their ideas of our ceremonies on top of our burial mounds and have stolen our language, customs, and ceremonies.

We have seen State Historic Preservation Offices hand over our ancestors’ remains to these groups of people. We have watched them perform Park Service-promoted Shawnee Green Corn Ceremonies in the Cumberland Gap when the only place on earth that one can occur is on my home ground in Oklahoma. We had even watched them dupe the U.S. Mint, which provided customer refunds when they learned about their inauthenticity, into allowing them to produce Native American pouches on the federal government’s behalf.

The Shawnee Tribe is not alone in facing these challenges. There are hundreds of groups that claim to be Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, Delaware, and other tribes without providing any information to document their claims. One such group calling themselves Lumbee Indians has chosen to skip the OFA process altogether and pursue recognition through Congress instead. Legislation to grant them full federal status has already passed the U.S. House and now awaits action in the Senate.

Unlike many tribes approved by Congress, these groups do not have clear, documented tribal histories. The questions about their history of governance as a people extend well beyond Congress’ ability to answer. Congressional approval of the Lumbee or any of the other myriad of tribes who seek to altogether avoid any examination of their histories through the OFA process represents a clear and present danger to every legitimate tribe across the nation.

That is why, just last month, the Shawnee Tribe passed a resolution urging the federal government to ensure that all questionable groups seeking federal acknowledgment apply through the Department of Interior’s official channels. We know that it is the only way to ensure that our sovereignty, identities, and cultures remain protected from these outside threats and abuses.

Twenty-one years later, we still cherish our recognition as a sovereign government and the opportunities for rebuilding our nation and culture that it provides. It was a long time coming, and we’ll fight to protect it. We look forward to working with tribal and government allies alike to preserve the hard-won progress in restoring sovereignty for all tribal nations into the future.


Ben Barnes is the chief of the Shawnee Tribe, a federally recognized Native American tribe headquartered in Oklahoma.