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The Process and The People: Federal Recognition in California, Native American Identity, and the San Luis Rey Band of Mission Indians


The United States maintains an artificial hierarchy amongst Native American tribes by acknowledging, or recognizing, some tribes’ inherent tribal sovereignty over others. Tribes are considered federally recognized or unrecognized not because of intrinsic differences, but rather the history of their interactions with the government. Without a federally recognized sovereign status unrecognized tribes are often landless, are denied protections from federal laws designed to aid Native people and tribal nations, are unable access to federal resources for education or health services, and are limited in their ability to practice self-determination. Unrecognized tribes and tribal members are also subject to intangible difficulties from skeptics who question cultural authenticity and suggest ethnic fraud. California has the most unrecognized tribes in the country and the most that have taken steps to pursue federal recognition through the Federal Acknowledgment Process, a system using seven criteria to acknowledge tribal sovereignty that is administered by the Office of Federal Acknowledgment within the Department of the Interior.

The Process and The People analyzes the politics and history of federal recognition in California and its connection to contemporary Native identity. This study provides critical context on the origins of federal acknowledgment and the Federal Acknowledgment Process within a broader lineage of colonial laws and policies that bear on Native American identity. Focusing explicitly on federal acknowledgment in California, it traces the settler colonial history of the state and its connection to the current crisis of federal recognition across Native California. The Process and The People also includes a case study of the San Luis Rey Band of Mission Indians, the only unrecognized tribe in San Diego County. As part of a larger movement of unrecognized tribes in California seeking recognition, the case of the San Luis Rey Band exemplifies the issues of recognition in the state while highlighting the tribe’s unique history within the broader recognition landscape. Through the experience of the San Luis Rey Band, The Process and The People contends that the tribe’s engagement with the Federal Acknowledgment Process is part of a longer history of tribal interaction with the federal government. The case illustrates to what extent tribes can use the Federal Acknowledgment Process for their own political and social purposes, how unrecognized tribes enact self-determination and tribal sovereignty, and what understandings of community identity underpin the pursuit for federal recognition.

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