Forgotten Tribes: Unrecognized Indians and the Federal Acknowledgment Process

Forgotten Tribes: Unrecognized Indians and the Federal Acknowledgment Process

University of Nebraska Press
355 pages
paperback ISBN: 978-0-8032-8321-3
hardback ISBN: 978-0-8032-3226-6

Mark Edwin Miller, Associate Professor of History
Southern Utah University

The Federal Acknowledgment Process (FAP) is one of the most important and contentious issues facing Native Americans today. A complicated system of criteria and procedures, the FAP is utilized by federal officials to determine whether a Native community qualifies for federal recognition by the United States government. In Forgotten Tribes, Mark Edwin Miller offers a balanced and detailed look at the origins, procedures, and assumptions governing the FAP. His work examines the FAP through the prism of four previously unrecognized tribal communities and their battles to gain indigenous rights under federal law.

Based on a wealth of interviews and original research, Forgotten Tribes features the first in-depth history and overview of the FAP and sheds light on this controversial Native identification policy involving state power over Native peoples and tribal sovereignty.


  • Acknowledgments
  • Abbreviations
  • Map
  • Introduction
  • 1. Adrift with the Indian Office: The Historical Development of Tribal Acknowledgment Policy, 1776-–1978
  • 2. Building an Edifice: The BIA’s Federal Acknowledgment Process, 1978–-2002
  • 3. Bypassing the Bureau: The Pascua Yaquis’ Quest for Legislative Tribal Recognition
  • 4. Sometimes Salvation: The Death Valley Timbisha Shoshones of California and the BIA’s Federal Acknowledgment Process
  • 5. A Matter of Visibility: The United Houma Nation’s Struggle for Tribal Acknowledgment
  • 6. From Playing Indian to Playing Slots: Gaming, Tribal Recognition, and the Tiguas of El Paso, Texas
  • Conclusion
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index


It was in the early 1990s that the small Mashantucket Pequot Tribe of Connecticut burst upon the national scene, indelibly marking popular perceptions of once unacknowledged Indian tribes in the public conscious. After struggling for centuries without federal tribal status, the Pequots under Richard “Skip” Hayward dashed with aplomb into the twenty-first century, leading the march toward self-suf ciency and self-government through their phenomenally successful Foxwoods Casino complex situated midway between New York City and Boston. Making one billion dollars annually by the end of the decade, Foxwoods was the most lucrative gambling Mecca in the United States, drawing widespread attention up and down the East Coast. A decade earlier when the tribe had secured federal acknowledgment through an act of Congress in 1983, the development had raised few eyebrows, however, causing more relief than alarm because it settled a lengthy and bitter land dispute between the Pequots and neighboring property owners. Some observers undoubtedly felt that the obscure tribe, once widely believed to be extinct, had finally gotten its revenge for past injustices. Other locals simply were happy to have a place to gamble so close to their homes, cheering the Pequots for making this possible and perhaps being a little amused by the whole unlikely scenario. Questions soon arose, however, when the group possessing Indian, European, and African ancestry grew increasingly rich and powerful, with its gambling enterprise shattering the once bucolic Connecticut countryside with crowds, traffic jams, and high-rise development. Angered by their suddenly powerful neighbor, many locals began to ask: Who were these people that variously appeared white, Indian, black, or something in-between? If they looked and lived much like their well-to-do neighbors, was the group really an Indian tribe at all? Clearly, tribal acknowledgment had given the Pequots all the bene ts of tribal status and sovereignty. But it had not allowed them to exist in obscurity as before. Every year during the 1990s tensions and recriminations grew. When a book emerged claiming that the Pequots may have tricked the federal government into believing they were an Indian tribe, local leaders clamored to have their status overturned. By 2000 the continuing deluge of press coverage ensured that the Mashantucket Pequots became the dominant face of recently acknowledged Indian tribes in the United States.

At the same time, in stark contrast to the glitz and wealth of the Pequots stood a struggling band of Shoshones in California. A world away from Connecticut in the desert sands of Death Valley National Park, the Timbisha Shoshone Indians also existed without federal acknowledgment until the early 1980s. The Shoshones were unlike the Pequots at first glance, however, and few non-Indians doubted that the tiny Timbisha group was Indian. In the late 1970s the Shoshones were struggling against the National Park Service’s efforts to evict them from their ancestral homeland, clinging to their crumbling adobe casitas and modest trailers that shifting sand dunes threatened to swallow at any moment. Decades earlier the Park Service had corralled them into a single village to make room for its luxury hotels, golf course, and RV resort to cater to tourists hoping to escape the northern winters or recapture the “Wild West” for a weekend. Like the Pequots, the Timbisha Shoshones also secured acknowledgment in 1983, but this new status provided few of the fringe benefits afforded the Connecticut tribe. In 2000 the band still lacked a federal reservation and lived in poor housing much like it had before recognition. The Timbisha Shoshones presented another face of once unacknowledged Indian peoples in the modern United States. The experience of the over two hundred other unacknowledged groups likely lies somewhere in between.


This work is about the process of acknowledging Indian tribes, whether accomplished through the administrative channels of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) or through Congress.  At its core it is about modern Indian identity: how the state identifies and legitimizes tribes and how recognized tribes, non-Indian scholars, and the American public perceive Indians. Along the way it provides a rare glimpse into Indian and non-Indian representations of “Indianness” and tribalism. These pages also present the histories of four unacknowledged tribal groups viewed through the prism of their efforts to gain federal recognition. Federal tribal acknowledgment or recognition is one of the most significant developments in Indian policy in the post–World War II era, yet is also one of the most acrimonious methods of sorting out and defining Indianness in the United States. As the list of over two hundred groups seeking to secure federal tribal status grows each year, federal acknowledgment policy has become increasingly controversial and contested terrain for determining Indian authenticity.

Tribal recognition is contentious precisely because it involves definitions of what constitutes an Indian tribe,who can lay claim to being an Indian, and what factors should be paramount in the process of identifying Indian tribes. Akin to the recognition of foreign governments, federal tribal acknowledgment is highly valued because it establishes a “government-to-government” relationship between the federal government and an Indian group. Federal status thus allows a newly recognized federal tribe the power to exercise sovereignty and participate in federal Indian programs emanating from the BIA and the Indian Health Service. It also affects issues as diverse as Indian self-government, health care, Native American cultural repatriation, Indian gaming, and public lands held by the National Park Service and other federal agencies. Beyond these facts the acknowledgment process can determine the life or death of struggling groups while providing unacknowledged tribes outside validation of their racial and cultural identity as Indians…

…From the start local whites questioned whether these groups were indeed tribes and expressed doubts about their Indian identity. To the eastern landowners, most of these groups “looked” variously white, black, Indian, or something in between. They clearly did not fit the image of the horseriding, buffalo-hunting Indians they had seen in Hollywood westerns. In court the town attorneys proceeded to impugn the cultural and tribal integrity of these people, claiming that the groups had long ago abandoned their tribal organizations and assimilated into American society and culture. Despite the Wampanoags’ assertions that the land on Martha’s Vineyard was sacred to their people and that they maintained a vibrant tribal organization, town lawyers echoed a popular belief that the Wampanoags——if they were a group at all——were assimilated individuals hoping to get rich off land claims. Because the rights asserted were group rights, the hopes of the Martha’s Vineyard Indians and others ultimately rested on whether they were still an Indian “tribal” entity…

Read the entire introduction here.

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