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React & Act: Understanding ‘ghost tribes’

In “Without federal recognition, tribe struggles to protect sacred sites,” reporter Marc Dadigan introduces readers to the Winnemem Wintu, a “ghost tribe” that has fought to preserve traditions and historical rights in the absence of federal recognition. Within this guide you find resources to help you understand Dadigan’s article, as well as contact information for key players involved in the issue.

Frequently asked questions

What are ghost tribes?

Ghost tribes are American Indian tribes that lack official recognition from the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs. Members do not have benefits – including the right to possess eagle feathers or access to federal college scholarships – or authority over ancestral lands, two key protections federal recognition provides. There are currently about 75 tribes in California that are petitioning for recognition.

Who are the Winnemem Wintu?

Also known as the Middle Water People, this American Indian tribe is indigenous to Northern California, along the McCloud River near Mount Shasta. The Winnemem Wintu were not included in the Office of Federal Acknowledgment’s initial list of federally recognized tribes, but members of the tribe continued to be eligible for various federal benefits through bureau-certified paperwork attesting to their heritage. That changed in 1986, when the Supreme Court ruled that American Indians must belong to a federally recognized tribe in order to be eligible. According to archeologists, the tribe once numbered up to 14,000; only 125 remain.

How can you get involved?

If you are interested in supporting the Winnemem Wintu, its website lists several ways that people can become involved, including links to postcards that can be downloaded and sent to the U.S. Forest Service and a Change.org petition.

Who and where are the Tsnungwe?

This tribe has ancestral grounds in Humboldt and Trinity counties in Northern California. It has been fighting to correct what its members see as an “administrative error” when the federal government failed to recognize them as the “Trinity Tribe,” recognized in census figures and other federal documents. Learn more here. Like the Winnemem, the Tsnungwe have found their legal standing no greater than any other member of the public as they have worked to oppose such projects as cellphone towers on their ancestral land.

Has any ghost tribe earned federal recognition?

The only California ghost tribe to win federal recognition through the Bureau of Indian Affairs process is Death Valley’s Timbisha Shoshone Band. The tribe’s homelands were subsumed when President Herbert Hoover created Death Valley National Park. It won recognition in the early ’80s, but did not receive a land base until November 2000, the first tribal land base inside a national park. Learn more here.

Why was Tolowa Nation’s recognition bid denied?

A ghost tribe of Northern California and southern Oregon, the Tolowa Nation has been seeking bureau recognition since 1982. The petition was rejected in 2010 on the grounds that the tribe couldn’t prove its existence as a community from 1903 to1930. You can read the bureau's rejection here.

Why is there video of boaters interrupting the Coming of Age ceremony, and where can you find it?

After repeated problems with disruptions during ceremonies, a Winnemem tribe member videotaped the 2006 ceremony and captured several crude interruptions, including a boater flashing her breasts at the tribe.View and download it here.

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What are the federal acts referenced in the article?

The 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act aims to keep American Indian children with American Indian families. Congress passed the act in response to a growing number of American Indian children being removed from their homes by both private and public agencies. The act’s federal guidelines apply only to federally recognized tribes.

Also passed by Congress in 1978, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act [PDF] seeks to protect and preserve the religious rights of American Indians, Eskimos, Aleuts, Native Hawaiians and other groups. These rights include access to sacred sites, the freedom to worship in ceremonial and traditional ways, and the use and possession of objects that are considered sacred, including otherwise federally illegal objects, like the hallucinogen peyote or protected species’ bones. Only federally recognized tribes are covered by this legislation. Part of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, feather permits allow members of federally recognized tribes to obtain and carry “eagle feathers and eagle parts” for religious purposes. These items, otherwise illegal under the Bald Eagle Protection Act of 1940, may be possessed by recognized Indians as traditionally sacred items through a permit application process. Applications are submitted through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and permits allow access to the National Eagle Repository, where these sacred items may be obtained.

Key Players

Winnemem Wintu
Phone: 530-275-2737
Address: 14840 Bear Mountain Road,
Redding, CA 96003
Website: www.winnememwintu.us
Facebook: www.facebook.com/winnememwintu

California Native American Heritage Commission
Phone: 916-653-4082
Address: 915 Capitol Mall, Room 364
Sacramento, CA 95814
Website: www.nahc.ca.gov

Bureau of Indian Affairs
Phone: 202-208-5116
Address: Bureau of Indian Affairs
MS-4606-MIB
1849 C St., NW
Washington, D.C. 20240
Website: www.bia.gov
Facebook: www.facebook.com/pages/US-Indian-Affairs/211979362167761
Twitter: @USIndianAffairs

U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (Mid-Pacific Region)
Phone: 916-978-5000
Address: Federal Office Building
2800 Cottage Way
Sacramento, CA 95825-1898
Website: www.usbr.gov/mp

Jim Reed for Congress
Address: P.O. Box 990850
Redding, CA 96099
Website: www.jimreed2012.com
Email: info@jimreed2012.com

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