Indian Legal Clinic hosts conference on broken federal recognition process

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Patty Ferguson-Bohnee

The broken process for federal recognition of Indian tribes is the focus of a conference on Jan. 16 & 17, hosted by the Indian Legal Clinic at the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law at Arizona State University. 

The conference, “Who Decides You’re Real?  Fixing the Federal Recognition Process,” will be the first of its kind nationally, and will discuss the history of federal recognition, current issues with recognition, the existing federal administrative criteria, proposed changes to the federal acknowledgment process, and the results of a unique survey conducted by the Indian Legal Clinic.

It will be held at the Memorial Union on ASU’s Tempe campus. 

The  conference will bring together tribal leaders, tribal members, consultants who have assisted unrecognized tribes in establishing and exercising rights, and others to discuss challenges faced by unrecognized tribes, and identifying obstacles and proposing solutions to the current recognition framework.

Currently, the U.S. government officially recognizes 566 Native American tribes. These communities have certain legal, regulatory and financial rights and privileges that are not available for non-recognized communities. The recognition process has been controversial, slow and inconsistent, resulting in tribes held in limbo while lacking the legal means to help meet the needs of their citizens.

The Indian Legal Clinic recently conducted the first comprehensive survey of unrecognized tribes. At the same time, the U.S. Department of the Interior has announced that it will propose new regulations in an effort to improve the federal recognition process.

“Those tribes that are struggling with gaining U.S. federal recognition have an even more difficult time in meeting the governance and social needs of their citizens,” said Frank Ettawageshik, a member of the Conference Committee and former Chairman of the Waganakising Odawa – Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians. “This conference will give anyone interested in the issues surrounding the U.S. federal recognition process, and the exercise of inherent sovereignty, a chance to engage in discussions and hear how tribal leaders and professionals in the field are working on improving the process.

“Additionally, panels have been organized to give examples of how tribes have been exercising sovereignty, even when other surrounding sovereigns do not acknowledge that sovereignty. This lack of respect for tribal governments is an issue that can affect all tribes whether federally recognized or not.” 

Professor Patty Ferguson-Bohnee, Director of the College of Law’s Indian Legal Clinic and conference committee chair, said tribes are looking for solutions.

“The Clinic is hopeful the conference will provide a renewed interest with pragmatic solutions to address the critical issue of federal recognition of Indian nations,” said Ferguson-Bohnee, who has testified about federal recognition before the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs and the Louisiana State Legislature and has successfully assisted four Louisiana tribes in obtaining state recognition. 

For more information on the conference, go to

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