COMMENTARY: Language is not a requirement for federal recognition

by Jan 8, 2022OPINIONS0 comments



One Feather Staff


I’ve read comments several times over this past week alone where people state that federally recognized tribes must maintain their language or risk losing their federal recognition.  This is absolutely, unequivocally untrue.

Federal recognition provides a tribe with a government-to-government relationship with the federal government and is based on historical treaties.  Now, I know that groups seeking federal recognition through the BIA process have to prove existence of historic culture, but having an intact language is not a requirement for federal recognition whatsoever.

I’ve heard people say, ‘if we lose our language, we’ll no longer be a federally recognized tribe’.  This is simply not the case.

Doris Lamar-McLemore passed away in 2016 as the last fluent speaker of the Wichita language.  While tragic for any tribe to lose its last fluent speaker, the Wichita still have their federal recognition.  There are quite a few tribes who no longer have fluent speakers, and all have retained their federal status.

For a federally recognized tribe to lose its sovereign status, a process called termination would have to occur.  Once used by the federal government to disastrous results, the process of terminating tribes is no longer used.  Even when used, language loss was not a reason for it at all.

According to the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) 83.11, the “criteria for acknowledgment as a federally recognized Indian tribe” includes the following:

  • Indian entity identification. “The petitioner has been identified as an American Indian entity on a substantially continuous basis since 1900.”
  • Community. “The petitioner comprises a distinct community and demonstrates that it existed as a community from 1900 until the present. Distinct community means an entity with consistent interactions and significant social relationships within its membership and whose members are differentiated from and distinct from nonmembers.”

Let me break up the criteria for a second to point out that language is mentioned in a subsection of the community section regarding culture.  (b)(vii) states, “Cultural patterns shared among a portion of the entity that are different from those of the non-Indian populations with whom it interacts.  These patters must function as more than a symbolic identification of the group as Indian.  They may include, but are not limited to, language, kinship organization or system, religious beliefs or practices, and ceremonies.”

  • Political influence or authority. “The petitioner has maintained political influence or authority over its members as an autonomous entity from 1900 until the present.”
  • Governing document
  • Unique membership. “The petitioner’s membership is composed principally of persons who are not members of any federally recognized Indian tribe.”

So, language can be used by a tribe seeking federal recognition as a means to show they are a distinct people.  But, it is by no means a requirement for any tribe to have an intact language with fluent speakers.

Dottie Lebeau, Lakota elder and fluent speaker, was quoted in the Casper Star Tribune, “Losing the language means losing the culture.  We need to know who we are because it makes a difference in who are children are.”

She is exactly right.  Losing a language is a huge blow to the culture of any tribe.  Language learning should be a priority for every single tribe in Indian Country.  But, it should be a priority to preserve culture and history – not out of fear of losing federal recognition.