A group learns about the pipe ceremony inside the longhouse as members of the Miami Nation of Indiana shared their history, culture and traditions during the eighth annual Days at the Pillars. It was near Miami County’s Seven Pillars Nature Preserve on Aug. 27, 2022. Kelly Lafferty Gerber | Kokomo Tribune
A group learns about the pipe ceremony inside the longhouse as members of the Miami Nation of Indiana shared their history, culture and traditions during the eighth annual Days at the Pillars. It was near Miami County’s Seven Pillars Nature Preserve on Aug. 27, 2022. Kelly Lafferty Gerber | Kokomo Tribune
PERU — Shafts of light shone through the campfire smoke inside the longhouse. Sage, cedar, sweet grass and tobacco sat on a stool in wooden bowls, ready to be used in one of the traditional religious ceremonies held by the Miami Nation of Indiana.

Tribe member Isaac Marks stood nearby as the ceremony began. The 19-year-old Fort Wayne resident helped build the canvas-wrapped meeting place, located in woods southeast of Peru near a tribal sacred site along the Mississinewa River.

Around four times a year, any of the tribe’s members, estimated at 4,600, are invited to gather in longhouse to worship and fellowship. Part of the centuries-old service includes passing an eagle’s feather, which gives tribe members the floor to talk openly and honestly, Marks explained. The words spoken are never shared outside the ceremony.

“That’s their place to vent and their place to feel vulnerable and speak freely on whatever they want,” he said. “But we don’t want to ever hear anybody talk about whatever someone says in there.”

The longhouse gives the tribe a place to privately air complaints or concerns. But for 125 years, the Miami Nation of Indiana has very publicly shared their biggest and most bitter grievance.

That complaint is directed squarely at the U.S. Department of the Interior, which in 1897 illegally stripped the tribe’s federal recognition that had been granted just 45 years earlier. The unlawfulness of the decision has been recognized by judges, U.S. senators and the department itself.

Miami Chief Brian Buchanan, who works as a manufacturing engineer in Fort Wayne, said the move would eventually ban the tribe from receiving a slew of benefits and resources provided by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, including funding for healthcare, housing and education.

But more than that, the decision represented a direct attack by the federal government on the tribe’s identity and dignity, Buchanan explained.

“My dad always said if you take away a man’s dignity, you’re taking everything away,” he said. “And that’s what they’ve done.”

Now, for over a century, the tribe has battled to have its federal recognition reinstated. That includes a petition made in 1934. The most recent attempt came in 1984 when they applied for federal status, which was denied and led to a years-long legal battle with the Department of the Interior.

The lawsuit ended in 2002 with a federal judge saying the tribe couldn’t challenge the illegal revocation of its federal status because of the statute of limitations, which required the Miami to appeal the decision within six years after 1897.

The ruling marked the last chance the tribe would have of regaining federal recognition. Until now.

For the first time in two decades, a potential policy change and new legislation filed by Indiana’s two U.S. senators are providing a glimmer of hope that the tribe might get another chance to apply for recognition, said Miami Treasurer Shane Fox.

“But more than anything, it’s just a redress of wrongs and the government recognizing that, ‘Hey, we messed up,’” he said.

A tribe no more

Thousands of Miami occupied what would become north central Indiana centuries before Europeans arrived.

But it wasn’t until 1818 that the tribe began ceding its Indiana land to the federal government through a series of treaties that ended in 1840.

Six years later, the government removed about half of the Miami to reservations in the Kansas Territory. Those Miami would eventually become the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma, which is one of the 574 Native American groups recognized by the Interior.

The other Miami remained in Indiana. A treaty signed in 1854 identified those members as a separate tribal government. Eighteen years later, Congress passed legislation to allow the 5,500-acre Miami reservation near Peru to be allotted into individual farms owned by tribe members.

Around that time, Miami and Wabash counties began taxing those tribal properties. The Miami reached out to the federal government in 1896 asking for assistance, arguing they were a federally recognized tribal group and were not subject to state taxation.

Willis Van Devanter, the assistant U.S. attorney general at the time who would later serve on the Supreme Court, disagreed. He claimed the tribe lost its federal recognition in 1881 when they were granted U.S. citizenship.

Just like that, the Department of the Interior withdrew its recognition, and the Miami ceased to be a tribe.

Arlinda Locklear, the attorney for the Indiana Miami, said in her 45 years litigating Native American cases, she knows of no other instance in which a federal officer of the United States illegally terminated a recognized tribe.

U.S. law says only Congress can dissolve that status, not an administrator in the Justice Department, she explained.

“There have been tribes that were terminated by Congress,” said Locklear, who is a member of the non-recognized Lumbee tribe. “… But in Indiana, the Miami fall in this twilight area where Congress didn’t do it. A federal official attempted to, even though that’s admittedly illegal.”

The Bureau of Indian Affairs wrote in a 1990 report that Van Devanter’s opinion revoking federal status is “difficult to explain.”

Even the Department of the Interior admitted his decision was in error and the tribe was “inappropriately terminated administratively in 1897,” according to records cited in a petition filed in 2002 to the U.S. Supreme Court.

But rather than simply reinstate the tribe’s status to correct the mistake, the department said too much time had passed and the Miami would have to petition the government to gain back its recognition.

That’s just what they did in 1984. The Interior in 1978 had created for the first time an actual set of rules and regulations on how it would determine whether a tribe should be granted federal recognition.

The agency set out seven criteria that tribes had to meet. In 1992, the bureau ruled that the Miami failed to meet two of the criteria — maintaining a social community distinct from non-Indians, and exercising tribal political authority.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs denied their petition. It had been 125 years, and the government still wouldn’t consider the Indiana Miami a tribe.

'It really is tragic'

Florence Tigler sat beside three wigwams woven from willow samplings and cattails. The 58-year-old tribe member collected the plants from her parents’ pond, and the tribe later held a building day to construct the traditional Miami lodgings. One of those members was Tigler’s teenage granddaughter.

Near the wigwams, seven men sat around a single, 4-foot-wide drum, thrumming out a synchronized rhythm while singing ancient tribal songs. The group included a rendition of the “SpongeBob SquarePants” theme to entertain the kids.

The wigwams and drumming were part of the tribe’s annual get-together, Days at the Pillars, near Peru, where the public is invited to learn about their customs and traditions. Members wore their colorful Miami regalia while dancing to the rhythms of the drum.

Tribal Treasurer Fox looked at the scene from his spot at the drum circle. From his view, watching his fellow Miami dance and sing, it seemed pretty clear the Indiana Miami still exist as a close-knit tribe.

“We’re keeping our culture and traditions alive even if the government doesn’t federally recognize us,” he said. “We operate as a tribe.”

Susan Greenbaum, an anthropology professor at the University of Southern Florida, agrees.

Over 30 years ago, she was hired by the Department of the Interior to assess whether the Indiana Miami met the criteria for federal recognition. The Native American policy expert spent weeks with the tribe, documenting their social, cultural and political activities and discussing their ancestry.

At the time, Greenbaum only evaluated the Miami and wasn’t allowed to give an opinion or recommendation to the Interior. But today, her research makes a clear case that the tribe meets the definitions required for federal recognition, she argues.

“We did a lot of recognition work, so I understand the spectrum of Native American petitioners,” she said. “And on that spectrum, the Miami had a very good case.”

The Bureau of Indian Affairs disagreed. Just five days after Greenbaum sent her 100-page report to the Interior, officials said it didn’t show the tribe met the two criteria on which they were denied federal recognition.

Greenbaum contends the fact the bureau issued their ruling just days after receiving a very large and technically dense report indicates officials had already made up their minds about the Miami before they even looked at her research.

“That was my feeling at the time,” she said. “That was my feeling in the aftermath. And that’s my feeling still. It really is tragic.”

A glimmer of hope

But for the first time in decades, the tribe could get another chance to gain back federal recognition.

That’s because in 2014, under considerable political pressure, the Interior decided to rewrite the rules on the federal recognition process, which had been criticized as too expensive, burdensome, unpredictable and slow. The department acknowledged that a petition can take decades to be decided.

The process by which the Miami were denied was ‘‘broken’’ and in need of reform, the Interior said.

For the Miami, the most important proposed change to the new process was allowing tribes that had already been denied recognition to reapply under the new rules. But when the final rules came out in 2015, that provision had been inexplicably removed.

In 2020, following a lawsuit by two non-recognized tribes, two federal judges ruled that dropping the provision was “arbitrary,” and ordered the Interior to further consider why it didn’t approve the repetitioning provision that would have allowed the Miami to reapply.

Now, non-recognized tribes are waiting to learn what the Interior will do next. If the Interior does reinstate the re-petitioning provision, the Miami have a very good case to gain federal acknowledgement this time around, according to Miami attorney Locklear.

“The department could see the light and announce they are going to allow re-petitioning, in which case the Indiana Miami have an excellent chance of success,” she said.

Indiana Senators Todd Young and Mike Braun have thrown their support behind adding the re-petition provision, sending letters to the Interior asking that the Miami be allowed to apply again for federal recognition.

They even took their support a step further by filing a bill in August that would permit the Indiana Miami to apply for acknowledgment as a federally recognized tribe, regardless of what the Interior decides on the repetition provision. The bill is currently being considered in the Senate’s Indian Affairs committee.

“Sen. Young believes the Miami Nation of Indiana should be able to apply for federal recognition,

given that their recognition was illegally terminated in 1897,” a spokesperson for Young said.

Throughout the decades, Congress has attempted to grant specific tribes recognition, Locklear explained, but the legislation is usually controversial and unappealing to many senators.

“But what the Indiana Miami has asked is very narrow,” she said. “They’ve asked only for the opportunity to take another shot, and that’s a relatively light political weight to lift for the two senators. I think they understand the fundamental fairness of that.”

After decades of battling the government, it’s time the tribe’s federal recognition is restored, Miami Chief Buchanan proclaimed. Now, he’s hopeful that the events unfolding will ultimately lead to that restoration.

But if it doesn’t, the struggle will continue to gain back the dignity and respect that was illegally stripped from them by a federal bureaucrat 125 years ago, Buchanan said.

“They should have done this already for my father and mother and all my ancestors,” he said. “Today, we do have a pathway forward, but if I die not getting federal recognition, then I’ll roll over in my grave and my kids will continue fighting.”

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