The Haudenosaunee Confederacy established the oldest still existent constitutional democracy in the world. It was founded in 1142 at Onondaga Lake, what would be the capitol of the polity for over 650 years. The alliance of 50 chiefs — appointed by clan families of the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, and Mohawk Nations — whose ancestral lands are in central New York, came to dominate a broad swath of North America from Quebec to Virginia, and from Albany to the Mississippi River.
The egalitarian democracy is politically sophisticated with a constitutional process that operates to this day. The hereditary chiefs, appointed by the matriarchs of each clan family, continue to meet in Council on the first Saturday of every month at Ohsweken. The Haudenosaunee Council of Chiefs are the legitimate government of the Haudenosaunee people — and the party to a deep history of Treaties with the United States and Canada.
In 1779, General George Washington ordered the Clinton-Sullivan Campaign, led by General John Sullivan and General James Clinton. The brutal military operation constituted a genocide among the most egregious in world history.
The orders were not to overrun, but to destroy the Haudenosaunee people. Colonial militias burned Iroquois villages and stores throughout western New York and the Finger Lakes. Few houses or barns survived the warfare. Bearing the brutal brunt of their alliance with the British, the refugees who survived escaped to Canada, where they have been living in exile since. Today there are about 25,000 descendants of those refugees, 13,000 of whom live on the Grand River Territory at Ohsweken, where the community continues to recover from a long history of genocide, colonialism, assimilation, and cultural expropriation.
Will Obama offer federal tribal recognition to Haudenosaunee Chiefs?
The Haudenosaunee people continue to live at Six Nations and in the off-reservation diaspora on both sides of the border. But the Haudenosaunee Chiefs, the legitimate constitutional government of the Haudenosaunee people, have not been federally recognized as an Indian Tribe. There are currently over 560 federally recognized tribal governments.
Such recognition would allow the 25,000 descendants of those refugees of the Clinton-Sullivan massacre (about 10,000 of whom are living in the United States) access to federal services, education benefits, government contracting opportunities, and an ability to reestablish a land base in their ancestral homeland. Tribal status would allow the Haudenosaunee Chiefs jurisdictional capacities that open opportunities in many industries — from gaming, to tobacco, to banking — that will allow the still impoverished community access to economic development opportunities.
Such recognition, outside of the federal recognition process established by the Department of the Interior, would require an act of Congress. The last time Congress voted on a similar issue was the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act of 2009. That bill passed the House unamended, was taken up by Senate Indian Affairs Committee with amendments, and was then narrowly defeated on the Senate floor.
Recognition from the Obama Administration’s Interior Department
Federal recognition is a process established in federal law, and a function of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. In some cases, the Bureau has taken decades to respond to petitions for tribal recognition. Under federal law, a petitioning tribe must satisfy all of seven criteria before being recognized (25 CFR 83.7):
- 83.7a: The petitioner has been identified as an American Indian entity on a substantially continuous basis since 1900.
- 83.7b: A predominant portion of the petitioning group comprises a distinct community and has existed as a community from historical times to the present.
- 83.7c: The petitioner has maintained political influence or authority over its members as an autonomous entity from historical times until the present.
- 83.7d: A copy of the group’s present governing documents including its membership criteria.
- 83.7e: The petitioner’s membership consists of individuals who descend from a historical Indian tribe or from historical Indian tribes which combined and functioned as a single autonomous political entity.
- 83.7f: The membership of the petitioning group is composed primarily of persons who are not members of an acknowledged North American Indian tribe.
- 83.7g: Neither the petitioner nor its members are the subject of congressional legislation that has expressly terminated or forbidden the federal relationship.
The Haudensaunee satisfy every criteria for federal recognition. Could President Obama’s support in the last year of his presidency speed the federal recognition process — not only for the Haudensaunee, but for the dozen or so petitioning tribes who have been waiting decades for a bureaucracy to process their applications?
The Haudenosaunee Chiefs should meet with Obama
The Haudenosaunee Council of Chiefs should commission an Ambassador to petition President Obama and the United States Congress immediately, and to achieve status as a federally recognized Indian tribe — by an act of either the Administration or the Congress — before January 20th of 2017, when the next President will be inaugurated.
As a matter of political practicality, the Haudenosaunee Chiefs should establish a diplomatic mission in Washington, DC for the next year. Over that period of time, governmental affairs staff should prepare legislation for the lame duck Congress late next year, as they simultaneously pursue recognition from Obama’s Interior Department.