âThe goal of federal recognition is to be able to fully exercise our sovereignty. We will continue to be sovereign and Indian without approval, âshe said. “Corn [the] the reality is that we have the capacity to do more decolonial work if we have that political power. “
Several interviewees described being caught in a bureaucratic impasse. To be recognized, tribes must maintain their power and community, but without recognition they are denied the essential resources to do so. Unrecognized tribes do not have access to COVID relief, scholarships and the opportunity to operate tribal casinos. Without these rights, the tribes had to innovate: the Lumbees founded the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, originally a college for native teachers; the Washington-based Snohomish created a nonprofit organization to fund cultural and family services; President Tucker is building an interactive museum for Muscogee culture.
Unfortunately, not all tribes agree on recognition. Some unrecognized tribes have faced opposition from recognized tribes who question their validity. Snohomish Tribe President Mike Didahalqid Evans reveals to Vogue teens that because his tribe was not recognized and lived on a reservation, he was called “potato”, implying that he was “red on the outside and white on the inside”.
The Lumbee have been in conflict with the eastern Cherokee band for years. The Eastern Cherokee have expressed doubts as to whether the Lumbees can prove they are descended from “Any historical tribe”, and even spoke out against a 2020 bill acknowledging the Lumbee, who ultimately died in the US Senate.
Mahlea Hunt, a junior at Wake Forest University and former Teen Miss Lumbee, echoes Evans’ sentiment at Vogue teens. Recalling the time when others questioned his heritage, Hunt emphasizes the value of his tribal community. âI know how strong our heritage and our culture are and how beautiful they are,â she says. “It hurts for people to question our identity.”
Some have attributed the Cherokee conflict with the Lumbee to a competition for resources. Danielle Hiraldo, Lumbee and senior researcher at the Native Nations Institute, points out that US policy is designed to encourage Indigenous competition rather than collaboration. âThe system is perfectly designed in the eyes of the federal government,â she says. “It was always meant to get rid of the Indian problem, and by fighting against each other it does exactly what it was built to do.”
After decades of trying, it’s easy to lose hope. Generations have followed one another without ever seeing the recognition come true. But for some, like Tucker, it just creates more motivation to persevere. “I have been charged [to fight for recognition] by people who are now dead, âshe said. “I tell people that when you have a promise at the grave, you go ahead and finish responding to what you said you would do.”
Preston says that while the Winnemems are not actively asking the government, he has seen a resurgence of interest in tribal culture among the younger members, especially in featherwork and dancing. The surge in interest aligns with a tribal prophecy that says that at this time young people will rise up to live in a more “harmonious” way.
Hunt shares this optimism aroused by young people about the future of his tribe. âI feel like I’m so proud of my people. And in 10 years, if we had not received federal recognition, that would be enough for me, âshe concludes. âI know my generation will grow up to be these tribal leaders. We are going to be the best leaders we can be for our tribe and follow in the footsteps of our ancestors.
You want more Vogue teens? Check this out: Celebrating Native American Heritage Month Dos and Don’ts
Stay up to date with the political team. Subscribe to Vogue teens Take