Professor Helps MOWA Band of Choctaw Indians Pursue Tribal Acknowledgment

Published: September 20, 2022 | Author: Kenzie Lundberg | Read Time: 3 minutes

Dr. Mark Miller, Southern Utah UniversityDr. Mark E. Miller, Professor of History at Southern Utah University, recently wrote a brief in support of the MOWA Band of Choctaw Indians receiving federal tribal acknowledgment. After being denied federal acknowledgment in the 1990s, the Band is now looking to their congressional representatives to secure tribal status through an act of Congress.

“It is not well-known, but there are over one hundred groups that identify as Aboriginal communities in the U.S. that the federal government never formally recognized as tribes,” said Dr. Miller. “Currently the MOWA Band of Choctaw Indians is recognized by the State of Alabama. They have a small reservation, a tribal center, a few housing developments built with federal grants, and a sports complex. That said, state recognition is far inferior compared to the benefits that federal status conveys.”

The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), an agency within the Department of the Interior, established the process for bands to secure tribal status. The process requires groups to prove they have specific tribal ancestry and outsiders have identified them as a tribal group, live in a tight-knit community, and have had tribal political leaders since 1900.

“Groups with mixed-racial heritage, particularly in the Deep South where the MOWA Band of Choctaw live, have had difficulty using historical records to prove the needed criteria to secure federal tribal recognition,” said Dr. Miller. “Unless they occupied reservation lands, because of historical racism Euro-American officials tended to record non-federally recognized Indian bands as ‘people of color’ or ‘black’ rather than as Indigenous Americans. This served to deny them tribal land rights and other rights as Aboriginal peoples.”

Dr. Miller was asked by John Tahsuda, former principal deputy assistant secretary for Indian Affairs at the BIA, to write a brief in support of the MOWA Band of Choctaw Indians of Alabama to help them secure federal tribal acknowledgment. It’s essential for groups to provide academic support and historical data to prove they are Aboriginal tribes, which is why Dr. Miller provided his expertise. He shared a historical brief in support of MOWA Band’s aspirations using his research to provide evidence that the MOWA Band is a surviving Indigenous-identified community worthy of federal tribal status.

Dr. Miller is uniquely qualified to represent the MOWA Band. His decades of experience and knowledge provided the foundation for his first book on the federal tribal acknowledgment process, Forgotten Tribes. His second book, Claiming Tribal Identity, focuses on the conflict between the Five “Civilized” Tribes (now known as the Five Tribes), most particularly the Cherokee Nation, and dozens of unrecognized bands that purport to descend from the Five Tribes. An entire chapter outlines the problems the MOWA Band of Choctaw Indians faced in using Euro-American historical records in proving its “race” as a Choctaw enclave.

“Because I have researched and written about tribal recognition for over two decades, I have read thousands of pages of Congressional hearing transcripts covering tribal acknowledgment bills by dozens of hopeful tribes,” said Dr. Miller. “However, I have never been asked to testify for an unrecognized tribe. That is why this volunteer work was so rewarding for me. I was able to use my academic knowledge in service of a struggling community that desperately needs aid from the federal government and recognition that it is a legitimate Indigenous enclave.“

Bill S.3443 to extend federal recognition to the MOWA Band of Choctaw Indians was introduced to the U.S. Senate by Senator Richard C. Shelby (R-AL), a long-time supporter of the MOWA Band, in January 2022. The bill is currently in committee and will likely be approved by the Senate later this year.

Tags: College of Humanities and Social Sciences History Sociology and Anthropology Faculty History

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