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To Be A Wampanoag

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  • To Be A Wampanoag

    To Be A Wampanoag
    By Sean Gonsalves
    Cape Cod Times, Hyannis, MA - 11 Oct 2005

    MASHPEE, MA - How do you determine if someone is a ''real'' member of an Indian tribe?

    With the Mashpee Wampanoag petition for federal recognition now under ''active consideration'' at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the tribe's membership rolls are at the center of government scrutiny.

    While non-Indians may see the issue in terms of race, anthropologists and genealogists charged with reviewing recognition petitions consider tribe membership through a political lens, allowing tribes to make their own membership rules.

    In August, the BIA agreed to rule on the Mashpee Wampanoag petition by March 2007. If it is accepted, the 1,468-member tribe will join more than 500 federally recognized tribes in the United States today. Federal recognition confers quasi-sovereign tribal status and opens the door to federal funds. It also paves the way for tribes to build casinos on tribal land under the 1988 Indian Gaming Act.

    Experts say it is a common misunderstanding of non-tribe members to think tribal membership is strictly race-based.

    ''Federal recognition does not acknowledge individual Indian ancestry. Instead, it acknowledges continuous tribal groups,'' said Christine Grabowski, an anthropologist and recognition expert who has done consulting work for the BIA and the Mashpee tribal council. ''There's a misconception that tribes are racial entities. Tribes are political entities.''

    Some tribes, such as the Navajo Nation in the Southwest, use a blood quantum test - or percentage of Indian blood ancestry - to determine membership. If a tribe, for example, requires a member to have one-sixteenth Indian ancestry, that person has to have at least one great-great grandparent who is from that tribal group.

    Many Native Americans argue that blood quantum has no verifiable relationship to aboriginal indigenous ancestry and is a holdover from the early Euro-American ''one drop of blood'' rule, a way of judging white racial purity.

    And, some experts say, intermarriage combined with governmental efforts to assimilate Indians makes cultural and political affiliations more significant than racial purity.

    East Coast Mixing:
    Historians say Indians on the East Coast tend to have more ''mixed blood'' because of a longer history of contact with non-natives than Indians in other parts of the country.

    Because most federally recognized tribes are relatively small, ''you can't really have a (strict blood quantum) requirement because then you end up with a situation where tribe members would have to marry their first and second cousins,'' said Grabowski.

    For membership, the Mashpee tribe requires documented proof that the applicant is a descendent of one of the 451 Indians who were living in the Mashpee Indian District in 1860 - a decade before Mashpee was incorporated as a town in 1870.

    Those names are recorded in a state Indian census compiled by Dr. Milton Earle and published in 1861. Tribal leaders call it ''the base roll.''

    The tribe also requires members to be ''actively involved with the tribe,'' said tribal genealogist Patricia Oakley,

    Membership Closed:
    The Mashpee tribe closed its membership rolls several years ago to make their federal recognition petition as air-tight as possible, she said.

    The only new members accepted now are current tribe members' children who are under the age of 1.

    Oakley often gets calls from Wampanoag inquiring about membership.

    ''I have to tell them the roll is closed but I do send them a packet of paperwork,'' she said. ''If they fill it all out and have the necessary documentation, when the roll is reopened they can go before the membership committee.''

    Grabowski traces the popular misconception of who gets counted as a ''real'' Indian to stereotypical depictions in American culture.

    ''If you went to France, you'd recognize a political differentiation that has nothing to do with what they look like. So whether a Mashpee (Indian) looks like a Sioux is not relevant,'' she said.

    ''Why don't Indians look like they did in the 1700s? For the same reason, we don't look like what we did in the 1700s. Nobody is walking around looking like a Pilgrim. Everyone changes.''

    Continuity is Key:
    Indeed, Grabowski added, tribes petitioning for recognition must do more than document that its members descended from a historical tribe.

    ''You still have to show there's been social and political cohesiveness and continuity,'' she said. ''And that's what's critical.''

    That's not inexpensive, or easy. A proper petition costs about $1 million, she said.

    ''And that's assuming a petitioning tribe doesn't have legal opposition. The cost goes up every time a tribe has to file a legal brief.''

    Detroit developer and philanthropist Herb Strathers told the Times earlier this summer that he's been bankrolling the tribe's federal recognition efforts the past several years, though he wouldn't say exactly how much money he's contributed. He said he decided to back the tribe when he learned of its history of greeting the Pilgrims and helping fugitive slaves.

    "Be good, be kind, help each other."
    "Respect the ground, respect the drum, respect each other."

    --Abe Conklin, Ponca/Osage (1926-1995)

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