Federal Recognition Again

Note: This September, 1996 announcement is from our archives and is maintained here for research & reference purposes.

The restoration of full federal recognition to the Delaware Tribe of Indians represents the "high moral ground," Delaware Chief Curtis Zunigha said. After a generation's struggle, the tribe, headquartered in Bartlesville, OK, was returned to full federal recognition on Sept. 23, 1996, by order of Ada Deer, Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Indian Affairs. Since then, Chief Joe Byrd of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma has engaged the Department of the Interior, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the Delaware Tribe in an opening barrage of legal challenges to the ruling.

Zunigha commended Deer, saying "she has done the only thing the BIA could legally do--rescind their 1979 action because it was illegal. She has taken the high moral ground by making this decision with courage and sensitivity."

Although the CNO challenges to the ruling were not a complete surprise, Zunigha expressed regret that matters would have to move forward in an atmosphere of challenge and conflict, rather than the cooperation the Delawares had hoped for.

"Ada Deer's action does not completely sever our legal and political ties to the Cherokee Nation," he noted. He said several matters will need to be resolved, including an end to dual enrollment, as many Delawares are also part Cherokee, and the establishment of separate governmental jurisdictions. These items, Zunigha said, would be better worked "outside the courtrooms and the conflict, but we have no control over that, as the CNO leadership apparently has its own agenda."

"However, despite the difficulties now posed by the CNO's challenges, we as a tribe intend to move forward with our cultural and economic growth. We fought for the overturning of an illegal, and just plain wrong, ruling that took place in 1979, and the rightness of our cause finally won out. We intend to pursue the re-establishment of Delaware control over Delaware affairs with as much vigor as we fought for the return of our rights," Zunigha said.

At the crux of the debate was a 1979 BIA decision to "administratively terminate" the tribe, a decision undertaken solely at the request of the CNO. The ruling, which involved the control of millions of dollars, effectively reduced the Delawares to a "client-state" status under the CNO.

Until that time, the Delawares had maintained full treaty status with the United States government since the 1700's. In fact, Zunigha noted, the first U.S. treaty with an Indian nation was signed in 1778, with the Delawares.

The restoration of government-to-government relations between the U.S. and the Delawares was supported by numerous other tribes across the country, Zunigha noted. "We knew we were not alone in our struggle to reverse an illegal decision. We also knew that other tribes fighting for their continued existence were watching this decision closely. Full tribal recognition, and freedom to operate as a sovereign entity, is one of the major survival issues facing Indian tribes today," he added.

The Cherokees had cited an 1866 treaty with the U.S. and an 1867 agreement with the Delaware tribe when, almost 100 years later, they claimed control over the Delawares in 1979. In reversing that ruling, the Department of the Interior acknowledged that the 1979 action was a mistake.

"A comprehensive legal review conducted by the Division of Indian Affairs, Office of the Solicitor, concludes that the 1979 determination did not consider the entire relevant legal record and did not construe accurately the provisions of the 1866 Treaty with the Delaware and the 1867 Agreement between the Delaware and Cherokee," government officials said in announcing the return of the Delawares' full Federal recognition.

"In retracting the 1979 determination, the Delaware Tribe (of Indians), within the restraints imposed by Federal law, will be considered a sovereign tribe and will have the same rights to demand consultation and contracting as other tribes. As a separate sovereign nation, the Delaware Tribe of Indians will have the same legal rights and responsibilities as other tribes, both in jurisdiction and its right to define its membership. This decision clarifies the government-to-government relationship between the United States and the Delaware Tribe of Indians which was understood to exist before the l979 determination. This decision is final for the Department and is effective immediately," according to the DOI ruling.

The recognition of the historical and long-term relationship between the Delaware Tribe of Indians and the U.S. government sustains the Delawares' position that they have always been a sovereign tribe, Zunigha said.

He cited the Sept. 23 1996 ruling, which also said "the administrative practice of the Department of the Interior from 1866-1979 was to treat the Delaware as a separate tribe. The decision made in 1979 by the Acting Deputy Commissioner was a departure from this administrative practice and was made apparently without the knowledge that the Delaware had made payments in accordance with the 1866 treaty to preserve their independent tribal government rights."

The path of treaties with both Europeans and the newly-formed United States of America is clear and consistent. In fact, ambassadors from the Continental Congress and early U.S. leadership once proposed an additional state to be added to the 13 original colonies. The colonial leaders envisioned a state that would be comprised of Native Americans, with Delaware leadership.

Well-known for their peacekeeping and negotiating abilities, the Delawares often intervened in Six Nations conflicts affecting both Native peoples and incoming settlers. Also courageous in war, the Delawares have occupied a unique niche in both pre-contact and American history.

As the United States pursed its "manifest destiny" policies, the Delawares found themselves increasingly choked into small settlements, and moved from place to place. In the late 1800's, the Delawares were "removed" to Oklahoma, where the tribe and many of its people are still located.

The restoration of federal recognition shows very clearly that the small tribe, numbering about 10,000, has not lost either its negotiating and diplomatic skills, or its ability to fight for justice," Zunigha said.

"Our tribe has been united in the effort to regain our federal recognition, and we are united as we begin the process to assume full control over our own destiny. No one person or committee got us to this point--rather, it was the hard work and prayers of the Delaware people as a whole."

Federal recognition announcement written by Patricia Phillips at the request of Chief Zunigha.

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