Agency to partially recognize Seminole Nation
By Dawn Marks
Monday, February 06, 2006
WEWOKA, Okla. -- Seminole Nation officials hope a limited recognition from the Department of Interior is the first step to regaining federal funds for tribal programs.
The department agreed to a limited recognition of the General Council of the Seminole Nation in a letter to Head Start officials dated Feb. 1. The agreement will allow the nation's Head Start program, which serves about 200 children, to remain open for the remainder of the year, said Matthew Kelly, with the Seminole Sovereignty Protection Initiative.
"For the first time, we've got the Department of Interior stating it will recognize the general council in some fashion," Kelly said. "We're hopeful that this is a first step."
The Seminole Nation has been without federal funding for many programs since the Bureau of Indian Affairs asked federal agencies to cancel funding. The move came after the tribe decided not to allow the descendants of the Freedmen, freed black slaves who lived with the tribe, to serve on the general council.
The letter also states that the department cannot give full recognition until the Freedmen are allowed to participate in tribal government. Kelly said the tribe passed a resolution in October re-seating the Freedmen on the general council but since then, the Freedmen have not participated.
"My understanding is that their attorneys have advised them not to," he said. According to a Seminole Nation news release, the department's decision overrules the BIA, which had refused to recognize the tribal government since September when a federal court struck down changes to the Seminole constitution regarding Freedmen. In November, the Seminoles asked the court to clarify its ruling on the issue.
The bureau could not be reached for comment.
Federal agencies had begun procedures to end funding to the tribe's programs and Head Start was scheduled to lose funding Jan. 31. The Environmental Protection Agency has not canceled some of its funds, but the Seminole Nation continues to work with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Indian Health Services.
Tribal administrators are using tribal money from sources such as gaming to provide some services. The lack of federal funding has affected members and the surrounding community, Kelly said.
"It's not a wealthy community out here," he said.
In an attempt to keep Head Start open at least for the school year, the Department of Health and Human Services had offered to provide funding through a third-party, provided Kenneth Chambers, the tribe's current principal chief, and Jerry Haney, its former chief, would agree. That compromise fell through when Haney refused to agree, according to the Seminole release.
However, at the last minute, the Department of the Interior, the Justice Department, Marcella Giles, special counsel to the tribe, and Wayne Shaw, acting chairman of the nation's General Council, reached a compromise.
A Denver-based nonprofit organization will receive the federal funding and administer the Head Start program, Kelly said. The Head Start program receives $1 million a year, and the Early Head Start program receives about $400,000.