When the meetings of a state Commission of Indian Affairs are besieged with groups demanding that their culture clubs and they, the members themselves, be recognized by the State as Native American Indians, when members of federally-recognized Native American Indian tribes are denigrated in public by a commissioner of Indian Affairs as being less worthy of recognition in Tennessee than the in-state descendants of indians who died over a hundred years ago, when recognition of the state's historic tribes and Native American heroes is less important than trying to embarrass a public appointee at a Commission meeting, when a fullblood member of a federally-recognized tribe with years of service and statewide community respect is unseated from his/her position as elected chairperson of the Commission of Indian Affairs by the lobbying efforts of an election official who is a member of a state-recognized tribe not native to Tennessee on behalf of a person unknown outside his/her local community and with no proven tribal affiliation, then i think it's time to ask ourselves, Whose interest is the Commission of Indian Affairs serving -- Indians or their opponents?
As a critic of the last Commission, as a community organizer of this iteration of the Commission, as former chair of the Advisory Council and of TNNAC, i have a greater degree of investment in the success of the Commission and a better historical perspective than most people. Commitment to the Commission is a choice that is tested weekly by liars and haters and racists, and affirmed daily by the problems requiring attention and the prospects of projects that will create a better future. This year, 2009, brings the legal time limit of the Commission. If anybody wants it extended further into the future, the state legislature requires an argument be made that its current existence promises future success. It will be difficult to win such an argument with the legislature when the legislative officers appoint persons with no Indian Preference over the number-one choice of the community who is a member of a federally-recognized tribe. It would be stupid to try to win an argument with the state Government Operations Committee again this year with the Joe-Joe Show again present to attack and insult representatives of the state's historic tribes. It is wrong to defend a Commission with a decreasing number of members of federally- and state-recognized tribes and an increasing number of advocates of state recognition of culture clubs as tribes. How to defend a state agency in which the workers are demeaned and the posers entertain themselves with personal attacks?
Institutions have no natural life expectancy. They live as long as they are needed, and should be terminated when they lose their ability to contribute positively to society. That's why the state legislature created the law to periodically review all state agencies - to separate the vibrant from the static. The Commission of Indian Affairs is a state agency and should be doing good, for Indians and for the state. For the Commission to continue its relevance and existence, the community should be supporting it and extolling its virtues. I don't see the indian community supporting the Commission. It is, in fact, being damned with no praise.
For the Commission to be extended, it needs to be worthy of life. To be worthy of life, it should be composed of a majority of members of federally- and state-recognized tribes, have more than half a brain, have accomplished some of its goals, and have good plans for the future. Currently there is only one member of a federally-recognized tribe, no member of a state-recognized tribe, two persons with Indian Preference based on their family history, and four persons with no Indian Preference. The Commission will probably lose its only remaining member of a federally-recognized tribe in the TNNAC elections later this year, and there are no signs that her position or any other seat on the Commission will be replaced with a member of a federally-recognized tribe. ... which is the same situation that occurred with the last Commission: opposition to appointment of members of federally-recognized tribes. When such racism happens, the Commission is not worthy of further life.
A current bill, HB 239, introduced in the state legislature ten days ago by Representative Mumpower (R-Bristol), House Republican leader, would "appoint the Confederation of Tennessee Native Tribes as the entity that will review and present for recognition any tribes, bands, or groups that seek recognition," and "recognize, for purposes of state Native American Indian recognition," the six culture clubs that compose the "Confederation of Tennessee Native Tribes". Three current commissioners (Meeks, Thigpen & Henry) are members of the "Confederation" and the only supporters of the bill on the Commission that i know of. The introduction of this bill increases the oppositional nature of the Commission's membership, and with such division within itself as well as within the legislature, it's difficult to see how the Commission can survive a doubly partisan review process.
TNNAC elections for nominations to the Commission are coming up right after this legislative session. the TNNAC board now has a majority membership of "Confederation of Tennessee Native Tribes" supporters. TNNAC has been informed that the appointments to the Commission have not followed the rule of state law in appointing five members with Indian Preference to the Commission (TCA 4-34-104.b.3). No comment from TNNAC. The Commission has been informed of the situation as well. No comment from the Commission. When lack of members of federally-recognized tribes on a state Commission of Indian Affairs fails to become a major concern of the election body and of the Commission itself, i think it's time to question the indian nature of the state agency.
The great debate within the Commission this past six years has been recognition. As i said in my comments at the last Commission meeting, 'recognition' is a third-rail issue: anybody touches it, we all die. In this case three Commissioners are grabbing ahold of the rail hard and fast after having just been told that to do so is certain death for the Commission. This extended suicide, and the political dumping they and we will experience in the legislature, will not be painless for them or the Commission.
At the last Commission meeting (17 january in Memphis) Ramona Reece of Tennessee Native Times asked, "I would like to know that if a commissioner feels like this Commission is not worthy to be extended, I ask you and I ask the public, can that commissioner that doesn't believe in this commission truly serve it adequately? truly serve the people adequately? How you gonna serve with half a heart?"
'Heart' is a metaphor for commitment. It isn't a question of how committed a commissioner is to serve on the Commission. It's a question of the obstacles before the Commission and the collective ability to overcome those obstacles. I don't see TNNAC advocating for more candidates, nominees and appointments who are members of federally- or state-recognized tribes, i don't see the Commission becoming more indian, i don't see "the Confederation" withdrawing its legislative proposal and supporting the Commission, i don't see the personal attacks on commissioners stopping, i don't see a bitterly divided legislature re-approving a bitterly divided Commission. Instead, i see the "Confederation of Tennessee Native Tribes" alienating more people from the true existing tribes, and the number of legislators who voted against the Commission last year increasing.
Fellow members of the Commission and i have proposed music, education and tourism projects, all approved by the Commission, but none garnering community support. ACTIA and i have proposed recognition of the state's historic tribes and state recognition criteria for groups who claim to be existing tribes. I have proposed revision of state laws regarding sale of burial items and a commission commitment to dialogue with the state's historic tribes. supported by an intelligent few, ignored by most because these proposals don't apply to the vocal majority's concern: State Recognition for Themselves as Indians.
The kind of self-recognition without historical proof or community support promoted in HB 239 and HB333 is contradictory to established tribal and US and state recognition rules. The self-promotion of these groups calling themselves tribes is wrong and embarrassing. Narcissism and personal gain were never motivations for creating or re-creating the Commission of Indian Affairs. This issue consumes the Commission, and devours it. Until it is resolved, there is no state Commission of Indian Affairs, just a Commission to Recognize Indian Culture Clubs and Descendants in Tennessee as Tribes and Quasi-Tribes.
Heart and brain may be the energy sources that commissioners draw upon to keep going, but it is not what will keep the Commission alive. What keeps any organization going is successful action. With the self-centered focus of these who will do anything for even a hint of legislation containing a possible promise of recognition, it's time this Commission experiment end, and with it, a corrupted election organization. Until indians, indian descendants, and legislators here in Tennessee adopt a standard for tribal recognition in the state, AND indian descendants begin to work _with_ the historic tribes of Tennessee in Oklahoma to find some positive medium of interaction and mutual validation, this state will remain 'a dark and bloody ground' of infighting and no Commission of Indian Affairs.