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BATON ROUGE, La. (BRPROUD) — Multiple Louisiana Native American Tribes took to the capitol Tuesday in hopes of becoming approved for state recognition. They met roadblocks that they’ve been faced with for years. 

Some members of the Senate Judiciary B Committee pushed the tribes towards getting federal recognition instead. Tribal members countered that notion with anecdotes of the decades of attempts they have made.

Two tribes tried to get state recognition for the first time. The Avoyel-Taensa and Apalachee Indians Talimali Band tribes want a seat on the Indian Affairs Native American Commission to be able to vote on issues facing both the federal and state tribes in Louisiana. The tribes talked about their long history in the region back to the time before the Louisiana Purchase.

“Native Americans are the only race in the United States that have to have permission to be Native American. You put down Black as your race, no one questions you. You put down Native American. Everyone questions you,” said Serena Simonsen of the Apalachee Indians Talimali Band.

A group of tribes tried to reaffirm the recognition they already have, but they wanted to clean up some of the language. The Bayou Lafourche Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha Confederation of Muskogees, the Grand Caillou/Dulac Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw, the Jean Charles Choctaw Nation, and the Pointe-au-Chien Indian Tribe were all part of Sen. Michael Fesi’s bill to enhance their recognition. 

When a tribe is recognized by the state, it opens them up to scholarships, healthcare assistance, and creates lines of communication with local and state governments. They do not get the same benefits as the federal tribes such as monthly payments and government to government communication.

“All of us have this lingering thing that we’ve had forever, that anybody that seeks recognition and in this fashion has another motive in mind,” said Sen. Louie Bernard, R-Natchitoches. “And we all know what that is. But I guess I’m just naive enough to believe that some of these tribes really are not interested in that. They are interested solely in having the pride of having been recognized by their state as who they say they are.”

There are no set criteria in Louisiana to dictate what a tribe must prove in order to get state recognition. In the past it has just been passing bills through the legislature, and to be recognized by two-thirds of the Commission. One senator took issue with that and pushed the tribes to get federal approval first.

“They completely investigate everything. They completely look into everything. When the state [does] not, but once you have a federal recognition, you more than likely it’s not automatic, but more than likely the state will not turn you down,” Sen. Gregory Tarver, D-Shreveport, said.

The federal criteria has seven key points to gain approval:

(a) It has been identified as an American Indian entity on a substantially continuous basis since 1900;

(b) A predominant portion of the petitioning group comprises a distinct community and has existed as a community from historical times until the present;

(c) It has maintained political influence or authority over its members as an autonomous entity from historical times until the present;

(d) It has provided a copy of the group’s present governing document including its membership criteria;

(e) Its membership consists of individuals who descend from an historical Indian tribe or from historical Indian tribes that combined and functioned as a single autonomous political entity, and provide a current membership list;

(f) The membership of the petitioning group is composed principally of persons who are not members of any acknowledged North American Indian Tribe; and,

(g) Neither the petitioner nor its members are the subject of congressional legislation that has expressly terminated or forbidden the federal relationship.

But the federal process is lengthy and often difficult for the smaller bands to meet the criteria. Pointe-Au-Chien Chairman Charles Verdin said they had to get help from researchers at Tulane to look for documents proving their tribal ancestry. The researchers had to make trips all the way to Europe in their search. Only recently have they been able to find documents that could complete the federal approval, and hope to apply by the end of the year.

“They told us we are all Indian, but we all need to go back and find documentation of what historical tribe you all come from….We’re in a Pointe-Au-Chien Bayou, which is small. There weren’t many Europeans there to come there and have a history on us,” Verdin said.

Chief Shirell Parfait-Dardar leads the Grand Caillou Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw. She’s been working to get federal recognition for 26 years. She details how the federal rules have changed twice in that time period, thus setting them back to square one each time. 

“Back in those times, with the documentation that was required of tribes for the seven mandatory criteria, I don’t know about you, but I don’t think they had copy machines back then,” Chief Parfait-Dardar said. “Our people were running from yellow fever. Genocide, murder, you name it. They didn’t have time to stop and make a copy because the Bureau of Indian Affairs was going to meet that in 2022.”

Multiple tribe members on each of the bills testified that their people had to go into hiding or were isolated for a long time to avoid persecution. This made it hard for them to track down records needed for approval.

Chief Parfait-Dardar’s tribe already has state recognition but needed the language changed in the text to be consistent with other tribes. She does not know why the original resolution did not contain every benefit the current state recognized tribes have under their resolutions.

“I understand that concerns with federal acknowledgment, absolutely. But that is its own process. And we are going through that process and will continue to go through that process,” Chief Parfait-Dardar said.

Part of why Sen. Fesi brought his bill to reaffirm the tribes with state recognition is because after Hurricane Ida the tribes were devastated along with the rest of the bayou communities along southern Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes. He wants to help them get a direct line of communication to the governor’s office so they can better communicate their unique needs in the community after a disaster.

“They were so devastated during Hurricane Ida that we needed all the communications we could get with the governor’s office and this just made it a lot better,”said Sen. Fesi, R-Houma. “I think there were about 12 homes that were left livable after Hurricane Ida [in Pointe-au-Chien].”

Sen. Tarver made a motion to defer all the bills regarding the tribes. Sen. Heather Cloud, R-Turkey Creek, carried one of the bills. She told the tribe she would take a closer look at how to make the state recognition process more clear.

“I think we’re failing. We’re failing to provide clear guidance and criteria and a path forward for all of these people that have come to sit before this committee asking for recognition and all those that will come after us,” Sen. Cloud said.

All of the tribes that were denied said that they’re going to continue to come back every year to try to get the state recognition. Rep. Tanner Magee told tribe members after the hearing, many of which live in his district, he would be bringing a house resolution to have this discussion again. It is not clear if there would be enough time remaining in the current legislative session that ends on June 6. But he said he would bring it next year if he had to.