In government’s eyes, small tribe doesn’t exist

When Mike Evans pulled his hand-carved canoe to shore at the Tulalip Indian Reservation three years ago, he said Tulalip tribal leaders didn’t acknowledge him as an Indian.

Evans believes his ancestry can be traced back to the Indians who signed the Treaty of Point Elliott with the federal government. Among all the American Indians gathered at the annual canoe gathering hosted that year by the Tulalip Tribes, Evans felt he should have been welcomed traditionally — his cedar paddle pointed upright, and the hands of the Tulalips extended toward the sky.

“I told them in our language that I am Snohomish,” Evans said. “But they would not recognize me.”

Evans is chairman of the Snoho­mish Indian Tribe — a band of Coast Salish Indians not recognized by the U.S. government. The tribe spent 25 years making its case to the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, but it was denied three years ago, largely, Evans believes, because of the Tulalip Tribes.

“There is an attitude that they have suffered being on a reservation, and are therefore entitled to more than those who chose to live off,” Evans said.

There’s another reason, too, Evans said: money.

“The Tulalips don’t want their influence reduced,” Evans said. “With money, the Tulalips are able to purchase quality lawyers to fight recognition of anybody else.”

Evans and the rest of the Snohomish Tribe — which numbers about 70 people ­— are ready to fight back. They say they’ve been preparing to challenge the BIA’s 2004 decision in court — a claim they’ll file within months.

The confederation of tribes now known collectively as the Tulalip Tribes are successors to the Snohomish piece of the 1855 Treaty of Point Elliott, said Tulalip Tribal Chairman Mel Sheldon.

The treaty was the agreement for negotiated land and other rights between about two dozen tribes and the federal government. The treaty required the tribes to move to what was designated then as the Tulalip Indian Reservation, and live together as one group.

According to the Tulalip Tribes, their body includes descendants of the Stillaguamish and Snoqualmie tribes — tribes that are federally recognized and separate from the Tulalip Tribes. The Skagit and Suiattle tribes are also listed — names used by the federally recognized Upper Skagit and Sauk Suiattle tribes.

The Snohomish Tribe lost its bid for recognition within the BIA partly because it didn’t move to the reservation, said Margo Brownell, an attorney representing the tribe.

The BIA charged that the tribe hasn’t continued existing as a distinct community since historic times, and that it hasn’t consistently held political sway over its members.

“We feel that the BIA has a biased view of what an Indian should be,” Brownell said. When the BIA encouraged Indians to integrate into the pioneer society, the Snohomish complied, Brownell said. They intermarried with whites, and held jobs within the white community.

“Nonetheless, they maintained a distinct community,” she said.

Only about 8 percent of the 562 recognized tribes have gained recognition since 1960, according to the BIA. The BIA didn’t establish a process for tribal recognition until 1978. There are hundreds of groups currently seeking recognition. As of 2006, the most recent numbers BIA officials say they can offer, nine of those tribes are in Washington state.

Most tribes seeking recognition are denied.

The BIA requires a tribe to prove that it has existed continuously as a distinct community, with political authority over its members, despite historic initiatives that Indians submit to federal supervision in order to receive medical care, education and other benefits.

“The Snohomish tribe’s success was held against them,” Brownell said.

In arguments filed with the BIA during the Snohomish Tribe’s bid for recognition, the Tulalips argued that they are the Snohomish, Brownell said.

Ancestors of many Snohomish tribal members chose not to move to the reservation, Evans said.

“We’re all interrelated,” he said. “One brother chose not to go on the reservation, and the other one chose to go, but they still have the same blood. So one’s considered a Tulalip and is federally recognized, and the other one is not.”

Mary Anne Hinzman, a Snoqualmie Tribe council member, worked for more than three decades for tribal recognition, which was finally granted in 1999.

“That word ‘unrecognized,’ it’s a hurtful thing when your people have been here from the beginning of time, and you have to rely on a court system to tell you whether you’re an Indian or not,” Hinzman said.

The Tulalips were the primary opponents in the Snoqualmie case. Sheldon declined to state a specific reason.

Before the Snoqualmie gained recognition, Indians who could trace a bloodline in more than one tribe left for recognized tribes, where federal dollars and casino profits helped boost tribal economies.

“I always told the ones who left, ‘You can always come back,’ ” Hinzman said.

When the Snoqualmie were recognized, they did. Now, tribal membership is nearing 600 people, and the tribe is building its own casino along I-90.

Evans and other Snohomish tribal leaders meet each month in Edmonds, and tribal members hold a general council meeting each year. Last month, the annual council met in Everett’s Forest Park. They bickered over how to pursue federal recognition, and mused over the minimal benefits — emergency food supplies and limited energy assistance.

With a coming lawsuit against the BIA, perhaps there will be good news, they said.

Maybe next year, it will be better.

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