Edmunds – Miami Recognition

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There are many tribal communities left here in the Midwest, surprising numbers of tribal communities which are not in fact recognized by the federal government. Many of these people are the descendants of tribal people who remained when tribal, when other parts of the tribe were removed to Kansas, or Missouri, or Oklahoma. And recently they have attempted to receive federal recognition. Tribes want federal recognition for a variety of reasons. It gives them access to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which can be good or bad. But it also lets them put land in trust, which may be valuable to them for economic purposes. It’s very difficult to get recognized by the federal government if you are a group of people of tribal descent, because the government is very reluctant to broaden the number of tribes which it federally recognizes. The real issue here is you have to—well, there are several, there are several criteria. You have to show descent from a particular tribal group that was acknowledged as an Indian tribe. The other one is a problem of continuity. Has your community, has your group considered, continued to see itself as Native American people? Have they maintained a tribal community through the years since the removal?

Historians, for example, are hired by tribal communities to examine these sorts of documents that would verify their continuity. And so we look at old newspapers, we look at letters, we look at a series of reports by government agents. We will look at census records on how people are listed on the census. And those are very important in legal matters because the American system functions on the written word, not so much on the oral word. And although the Miamis themselves have a tradition of this, or the Shawnees in Ohio, or other groups, that they are a tribal community, sometimes when they speak on their own behalf in court, there’s a tendency for the court to say, well, that’s wonderful, but that’s just hearsay, that doesn’t really cut it. And so historians then will say, it does cut it because not only are, do we have this sense of oral tradition, but we also have once again the acknowledgment by non-Indians that this community or this group still exists. And that’s, that is a role historians have played in essentially attempting to strengthen some of the claims for recognition or claims for other, other aspects.

One of the more interesting cases, it seems to me, are the Miami people of Indiana. This is a tribal community, from my perspective, that they can trace their descent directly back to the Miami people who lived along the Wabash in the sixteenth, seventeenth, eighteenth centuries. And they have I would think, a very good case, although they were denied recognition. The Miamis attempted to be recognized, they sought recognition through the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and they also sought recognition through congressional means. The Bureau of Indian Affairs denied them recognition because the Bureau argued that in the, if I’m not mistaken, in the 1950s—40s and 50s—that they had not, their coalescence had disintegrated. That they had not come together as much and maintained a tribal community. I think that is a, quite frankly, a spurious decision. I think you can make a very strong argument that the tribal people, the Miamis in Indiana, had maintained and today certainly, they have a very strong sense of community.

Establishing a sense of community here is a real technical, and it’s a sticky issue. I would argue that there’s a sense of community if the people come together regularly for tribal ceremonies, for even social organizations, for hand games, for dances, for traditional get-togethers. And I think you can prove that the Miamis certainly did do that through the 1950s, 60s, right on up until modern times. There’s excellent evidence that they basically were functioning as a tribal community in the late nineteenth century. They were living together on lands which were not federally recognized areas in some instances, but they were lands that were owned by tribal members on which other members of the community continually resided. And we have excellent evidence of them coming together for traditional meetings, for ceremonial purposes. That is just not an issue.

Interestingly enough in Indiana there was a circus that wintered around Peru and the Miami community that lived around Peru, Indiana worked for the circus, taking care of the animals and working as circus laborers. And it was an interesting sort of economic opportunity in which a lot of Miamis participated. Another sort of sense of community, or kind of—things that were seen as sort of Indian jobs that the Miamis participated in. In the early twentieth century there’s good evidence. We have descriptions in local newspapers of the tribe coming together, local newspapers in Peru or in northern Indiana will say, “Yah, the Miamis came together for their annual homecoming and they’re doing their “Indian” thing. And sometimes these descriptions are rather racist in tone—it’ll be, it’ll be things like “Miami Big Chiefs meet for powwow, ugh” and things of that sort. But once again, it does illustrate that there was a sense of community out there. And there also is very strong oral tradition among the Miamis themselves saying, yes we remember. “I remember as a little girl when we met on the Eel River in northern Indiana every summer and we had a great big camp and we came together and we also then throughout the year would meet for particular ceremonies or purposes or social organizations or to organize things.” So this is where oral history also plays a major role.

Another facet of this would be a government in which they elect tribal council members. Within the community themselves they acknowledge that yes, certain people are leaders of the community and we rely upon them. And I think you can make a very strong argument in that case. There are Miami elders which basically have guided that community in Indiana for years. In the late nineteenth century and certainly even into the twentieth century Miami leaders went to Washington and attempted to champion their cause, but very often you get into a problem there with the politics of the region.

In other words, if there is a great demand for Indian land then the pressure is applied by local and state politicians to say, well those people really aren’t Indian and consequently the lands that have been set aside for them should not remain as Indian lands because it’s going to stop, it’s going stop the march of progress in our state. And they are sitting on ten sections of good farmland and they’re not farming it like we think they should be farming it. And consequently what a waste of land. And if we want those Indian people to fit into what we think they should be doing, then we think those lands should be opened up. And of course the tribal perspective would be, the lands are ours and they’re ours to be used. And I think in many ways, for example, there are some new “Indians” in the United States today, and those people are family farmers. And today family farmers who are attempting to defend a way of life on small farms in the mid-twenty-first century find themselves in the same situation as tribal people found themselves in the last century. They’re trying to hold onto a way of life. You might take the family farm and turn it into a big Wal-Mart, but at the same time, people say, my family has lived here all of this time, we want to continue living here, and it’s a way of life that we wish to protect. And I think that’s a very interesting sort of analogy that kind of puts it in perspective.

My name is Dave Edmunds, I’m the Watson Professor of History at the University of Texas at Dallas. I’m interested in the tribal people of the Midwest. I’m interested in Native American biography.

Production credits:
Executive Producer, Loretta Fowler
Assistant Producer, Brian Mornar
Production by Mike Media Group,
2009

Photo credits:
Miami Family, in front of Miami Chief Peter Pimyotamah’s home, n. d. Shown are William Cass, Mrs. Dora Scott, William Scott, Mrs. Cresa Jones, Rebecca Tribbett, Delia Eaton, Henry Clayton, William Tribbett. Photo courtesy of Miami County Historical Society
Menominee census, 1885 – Indian Census Rolls. The Newberry Library (M440)
Menominee census, 1885 – Indian Census Rolls. The Newberry Library (M440)
Oneida census, 1885 – Indian Census Rolls. The Newberry Library (M440)
Miami Tribal Complex – photo courtesy of Stewart Rafert
Old Settler’s Gathering, ca. 1902 – photo courtesy of Miami County Historical Society
Miami circus – photo courtesy of Miami County Historical Society
Elephant circus – photo courtesy of Stewart Rafert
Miami Indian pageant poster– photo courtesy of Miami County Historical Society
Gabriel Godfroy, Chief – photo courtesy of Miami County Historical Society
Family farm – photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons/Royalbroil

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