Former Shinnecock Tribal Trustee Lance Gumbs spoke last week at a forum in Arizona, held to discuss ways to help the federal government fix the sluggish federal recognition process for Native American tribes across the country.
Mr. Gumbs, who led the Shinnecock Nation’s own laborious, litigious and expensive federal recognition push for a decade, recounted for hundreds of tribal members and government officials the tribe’s long struggle to be officially recognized by the federal government, despite being one of the most well-documented tribes in the nation with official ties to local governments that date back to before 1776.
“We had been recognized by the state before there even was a United States—300 years,” Mr. Gumbs said this week. “But some records go missing from Southampton Town Hall, and [the Bureau of Indian Affairs] told us we needed to fill in the missing time period. They told us they wanted to know that we were the same coming out of the tunnel as we were going in. We spent $3 million and five years, from 1998 to 2003, filling this in—then they come and say, ‘You were right, you didn’t need to do all that.’”
Mr. Gumbs also told of the legal battle the tribe waged with the BIA, a division of the U.S. Department of the Interior, that included a federal judge granting federal recognition to the tribe on the basis of its obvious official history—a decision the BIA refused to honor despite federal statutes that said the judge had the power to make such a declaration.
Tales like those of the Shinnecocks are common through Indian country, and many tribes have languished for decades, unable to tap into federal assistance grants and services for their members, because they do not have the financial wherewithal to meet the BIA’s criteria for federal recognition. The Shinnecocks benefited from the deep pockets of their financial backers, initially businessman Ivy K. Ong and then Detroit-based Gateway Casino Resorts, who were interested in the potential windfalls of a future Shinnecock-run gaming facility. Gateway is estimated to have invested nearly $50 million in the Shinnecocks over the last 10 years, much of it on legal fights with Southampton Town and the federal government.
Federal recognition, along with opening the door for tribes to a trove of financial assistance for everything from medical care and education to grants for roads, courts and other appurtenances of modern autonomous governance, also is the enabling step for a tribe to open a legal gambling facility.
With the creation of the National Indian Gaming Regulatory Act in 1988, giving tribes the right to operate casinos as a means of economic stimulus, the historical legitimacy of some of the tribes who sought recognition clearly for the sole purpose of operating a casino has been dubious. As each new tribe was granted recognition, Mr. Gumbs said, the bar of acceptance and the level of hostility toward the tribes has been raised by the BIA. Some of the first tribes to be granted the new federal recognition in the early 1980s submitted only a few hundred pages of documentation; by the time the Shinnecocks received the nod in late 2010, their petition file was more than 170,000 pages.
The enormous undertaking that seeking federal recognition entails is what forced the Shinnecocks to seek partnerships with non-Indian backers in the first place, a move that has led to a deep fracturing within the tribe over the last two years over contracts with Gateway.
“It’s cost-prohibitive for most tribes to do,” Mr. Gumbs said. “It’s the reason we had to go out and get a development backer. Then people say the only reason you’re going for federal recognition is to get gaming. But gaming didn’t come into the equation until 1988—our petition was filed in 1978. It’s a broken system.”