Federal Tribal Recognition

What is Federal Tribal Recognition?

The process for obtaining federal acknowledgment is laid out in federal rules administered by the U.S. Dept. of Interior, Bureau of Indian Affairs. Federal recognition as an Indian tribe acknowledges the continuing existence of an Indian tribe and establishes a permanent government-to-government relationship between the United States and the tribe.

When a group obtains federal tribal status, it becomes entitled to unique rights, unlike any other group of citizens in America. Recognized tribes have the power to run their own courts, tax their own people and govern themselves. The surrounding state and local governments lose the power to tax tribal members’ land and businesses, to enforce local and state zoning rules and to enforce civil or criminal jurisdiction without tribal consent. Recognition of a tribe limits the ability of a state to regulate hunting, fishing, and gambling activities. Recognized tribes have legal standing to assert land claims and to purchase land and have it put into trust as Indian country. There are more than 560 Indian tribes recognized by the federal government, including several in New England and New York State.

Criteria for Federal Tribal Recognition

The federal criteria for tribal acknowledgment stem from a decision of the United States Supreme Court. The Court defined “tribe” to mean “a body of Indians of the same or similar race, united in a community under one leadership or government, and inhabiting a particular though sometimes ill-defined territory.” Montoya v. United States, 180 U.S. 261 (1901). In another case the Court observed that recognition as a tribe is “granted to Indians not as a discrete racial group, but, rather, as members of quasi-sovereign tribal entities.” Morton v. Mancari, 417 U.S. 535, 554 (1974). The federal rules explain that recognition will be granted only “to groups that can establish a substantially continuous tribal existence and which have functioned as autonomous entities throughout history until the present.” 25 C.F.R. § 83.3 (a). The group must be “indigenous to the continental United States.”

A group seeking federal tribal status must satisfy seven legal criteria:

(a) proof that the group has been identified as an American Indian entity on a substantially continuous basis by outsiders, such as anthropologists and historians, or in newspapers and books written by non-Indians;
(b) proof that the petitioning group comprises a distinct community and has existed as a community from historical times until the present;
(c) proof that the group has maintained political influence or authority over its members from historical times until the present;
(d) submission of a governing document with membership criteria;
(e) proof that the group’s membership consists of individuals who descend from a historical Indian tribe;
(f) proof that the group is principally comprised of persons who are not members of any acknowledged North American Indian tribe; and
(g) absence of evidence that the group has been explicitly terminated or forbidden a federal relationship by an act of Congress.

The St. Francis/Sokoki Band of Abenaki of Vermont Petition

In 1995 the St. Francis/Sokoki Band of Abenaki of Vermont asked the Bureau of Indian Affairs to federally recognize it as an American Indian tribe. (A related group filed a similar petition in 1982, but withdrew it from consideration in 1989.) The material submitted by the Abenaki group included hundreds of pages of genealogical data, historical accounts, and other supporting information.

Under the federal rules, the State of Vermont was designated a party to the proceeding. The Bureau of Indian Affairs invited the State to comment on the petition. The State filed a 200-page Response to the Petition. The State’s response was supported by 159 exhibits.

The BIA assigned a historian, genealogist, and anthropologist from its professional staff to review the Abenaki petition. In November 2005, the BIA issued a Proposed Finding consisting of a 150-page analysis of the material submitted by both the Abenaki group and the Attorney General’s Office. It outlined deficiencies in the petition and asked for specific information to address the criteria. It stated that the petitioning group did not meet criteria (a) continuous identification as an American Indian entity, (b) distinct community from historical times to the present, (c) maintenance of political influence or authority over members, or (e) membership comprised of individuals who descend from a historical Indian tribe. A summary of the Proposed Finding was published in the Federal Register.

The Abenaki group was given time to respond to the BIA’s Proposed Finding and submitted some small additional information. The BIA found that none of the additional material changed the conclusions it had made in its Proposed Finding. The BIA issued a Final Determination on June 22, 2007, in which it denied federal recognition to the St. Francis/Sokoki Band of the Abenaki Nation of Vermont. In its 60-page Final Determination, the BIA concluded that the group did not meet four of the seven criteria for recognition. A summary of the Final Determination was published in the Federal Register.

Where Can I Learn More?

U.S. Dept. of Interior, Bureau of Indian Affairs compilation of decisions for Petitioner #68 St. Francis/Sokoki Band of Abenakis of Vermont

State of Vermont’s Response to the Petition 2003

Bureau of Indian Affairs Proposed Finding 2005

Bureau of Indian Affairs Final Determination 2007

The State of Vermont’s Response to Petition for Federal Acknowledgement of the St. Francis/Sokoki Band of the Abenaki Nation of Vermont along with the 6-volume appendix of exhibits to the Response can be found at the following libraries:

  • Univ. of Vermont Special Collections library in Burlington
  • Vermont Historical Society library in Barre
  • Vermont Law School in South Royalton
  • Vermont State Library in Montpelier
  • Published: Jul 10, 2014