Hamilton Journal News

Tribes without U.S. recognitio­n locked of pandemic aid

- By Christine Fernando

Rachel Lynne Cushman is used to getting calls from Chinook Nation members worried about losing housing or having their power shut off. Since COVID-19 hit, they come in daily.

Cushman is secretary-treasurer for the group of tribes whose ancestral lands are based in one of Washington state’s poorest counties. While they mostly have been spared from the health effects of the coronaviru­s, the pandemic has taken an economic toll.

“We’re doing the best we can,” Cushman said. “But the reality is we don’t have the resources to help.”

Unlike federally recognized tribes, the Chinook Nation — consisting of the Lower Chinook, Clatsop, Willapa, Wahkiakum and Kathlamet tribes — doesn’t have a political relationsh­ip with the United States, which would make it eligible for coronaviru­s relief funding. Hundreds of tribes lack the designatio­n, which they say leaves them struggling to help their members and less equipped to combat a pandemic that’s disproport­ionately affected Native Americans and other people of color.

The 574 federally recognized tribes shared $8 billion from a coronaviru­s relief package approved last March. They have used the money to provide meals, personal protective equipment, cleaning supplies, COVID-19 testing, business support, housing relief and more. Another bill that passed in December gives those tribes another year to spend the money and includes funding for vaccines, testing and housing assistance for federally recognized tribes.

The path to federal recognitio­n is complicate­d, requiring extensive documentat­ion proving that the tribe is distinct from others and has continuous­ly operated since the 1900s.

Tribes have received the designatio­n through treaties, acts of Congress or by applying to the Interior Department. With it, tribal land is protected from being sold, their government­s are recognized as sovereign, and they share in federal funding for things like public safety, education and health.

The Chinook Nation’s quest for recognitio­n started with hiring lawyers to fight for land rights in 1899. The tribe was recognized in 2001, but the status was revoked 18 months later after the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs ruled that it failed to prove it had consistent­ly existed as a tribe through history.

They’re still battling for the status and got a boost from a U.S. judge who ruled about a year ago that a ban on the tribe reapplying for federal recognitio­n was unjustifie­d.

Meanwhile, t he Fernandeño Tataviam Band of Mission Indians, a tribe in Los Angeles County without a land base, has raised $2.6 million to build a case. It’s among six tribes based in California, Florida, Michigan and New Mexico whose petitions are being considered by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs.

more tribes in Louisiana, North Carolina and California are seeking federal recognitio­n but haven’t completed their paperwork yet.

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