State recognition of Indian tribes runs into trouble

NASHVILLE -- Attempts by several groups to get official state recognition as American Indian tribes or nations ran into trouble Monday.

In a joint meeting of the House and Senate Government Operations Committees, the Tennessee Commission on Indian Affairs, which is scheduled to go out of existence July 1, was seeking the committees' approval of rules regulating recognition. The rules were to have gone into effect May 17.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner, of Nashville, said the Legislature in the past has refused to recognize tribes, and he contended the proposed rule runs counter to the "wishes of the Legislature."

Noting that the commission soon will cease, Rep. Turner told Indian Affairs Commission Chairman Tamara Hicks, of Chattanooga, "I don't think we've ever had a commission go against what the Legislature wanted ... and then go out of existence not having anyone there to govern what they have recognized."

He moved to delay consideration of the rules for 60 days, which the House and Senate panels approved on separate votes.

The date is beyond the time the commission could act before going its demise. But Rep. Turner said it should provide time to see if the Legislature will extend the life of the commission.

Commission member Christine Goddard earlier objected, telling lawmakers, "I really cannot believe you're going to sit here and pass a stay that will allow the rules to cease because the commission is no longer going to be around. That is just incomprehensible.

"The Native Americans in Tennessee have been here forever," she said. "How many minorities out there have to have proof to be a minority?"

The Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma opposes the rules. Chattanoogan Tom Kunesh, a former commissio chairman and a member of the federally recognized Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in the Dakotas, joined 33 others in a petition opposing the proposed rules.

Members of federally recognized tribes for years have opposed state recognition, contending Tennessee-based groups seeking recognition are members of "culture clubs" who fancy themselves American Indians but cannot prove their heritage.

Groups seeking state recognition counter that they are the legitimate descendants of American Indians who escaped the 19th century expulsion from the Southeastern United States known as the Trail of Tears. They charge that federally recognized tribes and their members want to continue monopolizing government and other benefits.

Mark Greene, who lobbies for the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, told Tennessee lawmakers that the commission is pushing "eleventh hour recognition" and "has a built-in bias because four of the seven commissioners are members of the actual tribes which are seeking recognition."