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A Look in the Mirror: How Have We Come So Far Yet Remain Influenced by Settler-colonial Ideologies

September 19, 2022 Terry Chavis UNC-Greensboro

With feet planted on the ancestral lands of the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation, I speak candidly, but with humbled criticism, to our relatives within leadership roles, and financial and resource gatekeeping positions.

Yet Another Deep Sign of Frustration

As another scholarship application season comes to a close, I reflect on staring at my computer screen with the words burned into my eyes “must be an enrolled member of a US federally recognized Tribe”. I sit there wondering why, even as I look to community leaders within my own relatives, I am faced with similar experiences that I encounter with those of settler-colonial mindsets. Why does it have to be this way? As I close the tab in my browser, why am I forced to question my own identity as a Native American? Why do I continue to face colonial systems of oppression when trying to, as I have been told by countless people, apply for identity-based scholarships? These, and more, are all questions I have asked myself throughout the years of trying to achieve academic success and represent my people. This feeling brings back the painful experience in college where, to a group of my friends, I was called “The Imaginary Friend.” This language was used by another Native student who was enrolled in a federally recognized tribe. I was called “imaginary” because I belong to a tribe, the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, that has been suppressed by capitalistic, colonial-driven ideologies for centuries. But this is about more than just me. This is about the aspiring Native students who are members of one or more of the at least 200 Indigenous tribes seeking to achieve federal recognition, but remain state-recognized; this number does not even include those who are members of locally-organized tribal communities. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), there are 574 federally recognized tribes, and of those 200+ tribes not federally recognized, 66 of them are currently seeking federal recognition (NCSL, 2020).

For a quick reference to the difference in state and federal recognition, Koenig & Stein (2007) provide a practical explanation. They explain that state recognition is “an alternative tribal status to formal federal recognition” (p. 86) and that it “operates as a means for states to acknowledge the longstanding existence of tribes within their borders and to establish a government-to-government relationship to coordinate and communicate with tribes” (p. 86). Even more important in the acknowledgments, is the status of sovereignty. Members of state-recognized tribes have restricted sovereignty, minimal resources made available for tribal survival, and these resources and their availability vary by each state. In my home state of North Carolina, seven of the eight state-recognized tribes are not federally recognized. This puts a fiscal constraint on the intertribal relationships, and the sovereignty relationships between the state and each tribe. Though many Indigenous tribes operate with a paradigm that does not include money as the source of coalition, even we can recognize that our nation and livelihood has no choice but to depend on securing our finances before helping others.

How Can We Work Together to Move Forward?

First, do not let this criticism assert the claim that these scholarships and leaders within those organizations are harming the Native community. In fact, I honor and praise their hard work in assisting Native students with financial and community resources. My criticism is presented as a harsh truth that is rarely discussed within Indigenous academic circles because we attempt to reinforce the notion that all tribes are viewed equally through the eyes of the US government.

We are beginning to see an influx of higher education institutions offering wonderful tuition-free, or reduced-tuition, opportunities to students. Just a few days ago, NPR published a piece on these initiatives, and included the University of California system (Hall, 2022). So, I decided to research the links provided. Yet, again, we are faced with the words “Must be an enrolled member in a federally recognized Native American, American Indian and/or Alaska Native tribe” when reading the criteria for the opportunity. Even so, in 2012, there were 74 tribes petitioning for federal recognition in the state of California (Native American Statistical Abstract, 2012). If institutions consider following this trend, members of state-recognized tribes should be represented in those initiatives. Students of those tribal communities should be considered equal to their relatives of federally recognized tribes.

Scholarship organizations should look inwards to discuss why they have designed such exclusive criteria. In an effort of reciprocity and transparency, they should state the reason behind their decisions on their website or in other public-facing ways. Are they bound by federal resources and limitations from the BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs)? Have they been given directives from donors to only fund federally recognized tribes? Or are they believing that only federally recognized tribes are legitimate nations? I am sure many other questions could be considered as well, but this is just starting the discussion.

Though these criticisms seem daunting, I believe that we, as a relative people, can address and dismantle this settler-colonial thinking. To start, let us reflect back on the historical and sociopolitical oppressions of our people by the US government that was, and still is, fueled by budget lines and financial evaluations. To ensure a minimal cost, categories are created to pit one against another, including within our own people. Let us work to coalesce into a voice that breaks down the veneer of capitalism that hides the face of institutional acculturation and assimilation. Let us build an intertribal coalition to redesign the criteria of our financial support to Native students. More importantly, let us look in the mirror and ask ourselves why are we leaving our non-federally recognized relatives to fend for themselves in the monstrous system that is the cost of a higher education.

About the Author

Terry Chavis (Lumbee) is currently a PhD student in the Educational Studies: Higher Education program at UNC-Greensboro. He is a first-generation college student who is descendant of an Indigenous Peoples in rural, southeast North Carolina that were forced into assimilation and survived through sharecropping and tobacco farming. Terry serves as the IPKC Co-Coordinator for Awards & Sponsored Programs. 

Hall, E. (2022, August 19). Colleges are making tuition free for Native students. Will
more students graduate? NPR.

Koenig, A., & Stein, J. (2007). Federalism and the State Recognition of Native American
Tribes: A Survey of State-Recognized Tribes and State Recognition Processes
Across the United States. SSRN Electronic Journal.

National Conference of State Legislatures. (2020). Federal and State Recognized
Tribes. https://www.ncsl.org/legislators-staff/legislators/quad-caucus/list-of-federal-and-state-recognized-tribes.aspx

Native American Statistical Abstract: Violence and Victimization. (2012). Native
American Statistical Abstract: Population Characteristics.