In Depth: Lawmaker Pushing For Native American Recognition

by Tony McVeigh on November 18, 2010

Should Kentucky officially recognize Native American tribes living within its borders? A Louisville lawmaker believes it should, to help improve their lives.

Audio MP3

The history of Native Americans in Kentucky is deep and rich. Archaeological research in all 120 counties of the Commonwealth proves Native Americans arrived here thousands of years ago. But a common myth about Native Americans in Kentucky is that they hunted here, but didn’t live here. Not true, says Tressa Brown of the Kentucky Native American Heritage Commission.

“There were native people in Kentucky 10,000 years ago,” said Brown. “They lived here permanently and there are still native people living permanently in Kentucky.”

And they’re proud of their Native American heritage and want others to acknowledge it, says Mike Presnell, the commission’s vice chair.

“Anybody that has ancestry in the land they live in surely would want to be recognized for what they are, and not feel like an outsider,” said Presnell. “They’ve had to hide for hundreds of years now, and it’s time that they should be proud of who they are.”

Embracing their cause is Rep. Reginald Meeks, D-Louisville, who’s part Cherokee. Bills sponsored by Meeks define the term “Native American,” and outline strict criteria groups must meet before Kentucky will recognize them as an American Indian tribe. Meeks says his goal is simply to help improve the lives of Native Americans living in Kentucky.

“There are resources that are targeted for Native American people – to make their lives better in terms of housing, in terms of education, in terms of job creation,” said Meeks. “And those funds need to be targeted and focused to the native community.”

But one of the legislation’s most outspoken opponents is Sen. Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown. Thayer, who chairs the Senate State Government Committee, fears official state recognition of Native American tribes will ultimately lead to one thing – casino gambling.

“I don’t know that there is any way that you can guarantee me or anyone else who shares this concern that it won’t lead to widespread Indian casinos like have proliferated in other state’s in this country,” said Thayer.

Rep. Meeks says the fears are unfounded, because under the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, only federally-recognized tribes can operate casinos – and only in states that permit gaming.

“A group of people would have to go through the BIA’s recognition process and have the federal government recognize them,” said Meeks. “And, Mr. Chairman, this body would have to authorize gaming in the Commonwealth of Kentucky.”

Intently listening to the exchange between Thayer and Meeks at a hearing in Frankfort were several Native Americans, including Justus Dominguez and his daughter Joyce of Lexington (pictured). They later told Kentucky Public Radio, this has nothing to do with casino gambling.

“That’s not what we’re concerned about,” said Justus Dominguez. “We’re concerned about identifying Native Americans and looking for those opportunities where they could take advantage of their heritage – you know, getting help and resources.”

“It’s mostly about the recognition of Native Americans in Kentucky,” added Joyce Dominguez.

Sen. Robin Webb, D-Grayson, agrees, and says the casino proliferation argument is nothing but “a red herring.”

“I mean, this can enable and open doors for individuals,” said Webb. “It can enable pools of money, access for grants and aid.”

Rep. Meeks has twice gotten House approval for his bills, only to watch them die in the Senate. He hopes next year will be different.

Comments Closed


Jean Henry November 18, 2010 at 3:27 pm

Sounds like the government handing out more money unnecessarily. Based on this argument, we should all have preferred status for one reason or another. It’s up to us as individuals to make our way in this world. Have handouts really done anything to make this nation stronger?

Tony November 19, 2010 at 5:31 pm

To be fair, the US Government gave alot of Native American lands to settlers for free since earlier times. Some were purchased but other were taken away by treaties that the US Government made with Native Americans and then never enforced. Your ancestors and mind and many Americans could not have received these handouts without the the availability of these lands in this country. We became wealth as a matter of fact from these actions on the part of our government. Cities and towns and roads and everything that we have are a result of the growth of our nation through these handouts. So if people want to be recognized as Native American, then why not? Should we not consider their contribution Also?

Anne Wood November 19, 2010 at 6:54 pm

These are not handouts, Jean. The government funds allotted to Native Americans are a (meager) step toward bringing about justice to them for what was taken from them. Everything that this nation has was built upon the blood and bones of Indians, yet their descendents are often treated like third class citizens, and denied rights that the rest of us take for granted. And trust me, racism is alive and well in Kentucky, so they have had to keep a low profile, often not daring to assert themselves.
The Cobell lawsuit (google it)was settled for a tiny fraction of what the government owed the Indians of their own money from the funds that were supposed to be available in exchange for land purchases (which often were coerced and of the swindling nature). The government had “managed” it for them, but managed instead to lose about 50 billion dollars over the years. Records were not kept, some were found in such disarray in filthy warehouses, that the government had to admit that there was no way to account for all that had been stolen from the Indians.
So, no, they are being “given” nothing. This is a small attempt at plain, pure justice, long overdue.

david priddy November 21, 2010 at 7:54 pm

In 1838-39 there was a round up of all of the native (indian) peoples and forest march to indian terretory in Ok. many died in the stockaids many more on the march all that could got away any way they could . The gov. took all young to the verry old can you understand taken from your home with out your clothing blankets food weaken by being weld in a muddy P.O.W. camp for months and then put on a death march watching your babby die in in tis mother armes your mother father grandmother walking 800Miles in the winter time without any shelter your family dieing all along the way no mercy you must leave all that you know driven out of your country and the ones lucky enough to get away and hide have been hiding all this time we are not hiding any more we are native (indians) and you need to know we are still here we still live and like any people we still feel and if we ask the state of Kentucky for recognition after all the years of pain and lost of heritage makeing our own way in this time of so called fairness for all the people of this nation we should hav it . All of the things that you say and throw in our path is nothing new just like allways if you denie the we are here you can denie what has been done to the native (INDIANS)

Black Bear November 18, 2010 at 8:46 pm

I think that an unspoken truth is that the presence and history of the many tribes in what is now the Commonwealth of Kentucky, and, the surrounding region offer a rich diversity of knowledge of the landscape and cycles of the seasons. It comes out of a respect for life and living–subsistence living–an intimate understanding of the animals and plants–those that are nurturing and those that have healing properties.

So, it is important to not only acknowledge them as a “living heritage”, but to honor their contribution to this Commonwealth and region that we call home.

Jay Marno November 19, 2010 at 11:25 am

Rep, Meeks must still be looking for the “tooth fairy”. No Indian tribe needs anyone else to “recognize” them.
The only reason any group claiming Native American heritage wants official acknowledgement and recognition, particularly from the federal government and the BIA, is to be elligible to recieve millions in grant monies forever and which are never supervised and tracked. Also that official recognition allows them to own and operate a gambling casino and other businesses where they do not have to comply with the many laws protecting customers, workers and the environment, pay no taxes yet use all the public services and infrastructure paid for by non-Indian taxpayers and take advantage of a court created legal immunity for recognized Infian tribes that allows them to be immune from lawsuits no matter how outrageosu their misdseeds are! Nice try Meeks!

Tony November 19, 2010 at 5:57 pm

Under the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, only federally-recognized tribes can operate casinos – and only in states that permit gaming. In other words, the states have the final word.

This is a different issue for state-recognition of Native American tribes since they are not federally-recognized they cannot operate casinos. End of story.

Anne Wood November 19, 2010 at 7:03 pm

Jay, they are not interested in the gaming. Even if they were it would be impossible because to have that it would be necessary, by law, for there to be Federal Indian Land in Kentucky, and in addition to that, for the tribe to gain Federal recognition. The first of those is not going to happen, the days of establishing Indian Reservations is over… there will be no such land in Kentucky. Period. Also, it is doubtful that Federal recognition is in the offing, and that is not what they are seeking. They want to be recognized as being who they are, and having the rights that are justly due them. As far as the “freebies” see the comment I made to Jean.

Vicki Aldridge November 19, 2010 at 1:27 pm

I believe this is something that can no longer be denied. Im Cherokee and want as much information as I can get cause my family denies their heritage and I am all about my heritage, my culture!!!

Anne Wood November 19, 2010 at 7:18 pm

Vicki, the reason your familie denies their heritage is a carryover from the days when Indians had to hide their identities, “pass”, if you will, in order to protect themselves and their children from harm, even death… and to avail themselves of ordinary human rights such as education, jobs, normal human discourse, so that they could survive in the environment which had been thrust upon them. So denial became ingrained. Also, the children that were forced away from their parents to be put into boarding schools were made to feel ashamed of being Indian, were told that their Indianness was wrong and bad. Thankfully those days are in the past, but the scars still linger. You are right to seek your heritage, and proudly be who you are.

Betty Perkowski November 19, 2010 at 4:00 pm

If “Native Americans” were not already U.S.citizens (as all Indians all have been for almost 100 years) it might make sense to give them a special designation as “federally recognized”.
What is never mentioned is the rights these people give up in order to have tribal rights override their natural born rights as citizens. The Bill of Rights comes to mind. (A less effective Indian Bill of Rights was created but since tribal government, tribal law, and tribal religion are often all rolled into the same council, it is easy to see how subjecting oneself to this system is inferior to what protections they have now. The separation of powers is one of the triumphs of our Republic. Federal recognition eliminates that.
Also, any government powerful enough to grant you special status that gives you rights and opportunities denied the average citizen, can also treat you differently in harmful ways. Be careful what you wish for.
Also, As a US citizen you are considered a thinking adult. As a tribal member you become a perpetual victim, so unable to take care of yourself the federal government(not you) holds the titles to any property you own on a reservation. Makes it hard to sell if you want to “capitalize” on your property since only another tribal member would be interested in a similar arrangement.

Anne Wood November 19, 2010 at 7:07 pm

Betty, see above.
There will be no reservations in Kentucky. Ever.

Anne Wood November 20, 2010 at 12:41 pm

Yesterday I was so focused on the subject of casinos that I neglected to address the point of dual citizenship which is the right of every Native American. One does not have to give up one for the other.

Rebecca November 21, 2010 at 6:12 pm


You’re somewhat misinformed about tribal citizenship. Tribal citizens have the same rights as any other U.S. citizens off the reservation. On the reservation, tribal citizens are subject to the laws of our tribes–which are determined by tribal governments elected by tribal people. It’s the same as going to another country: in that country, you follow the laws of that country. On tribal land, if you’re a tribal citizen, you follow your national law. (Unfortunately, tribal law does not apply to non-citizens–which creates a huge law enforcement gap–but I think that is coming down the road.) Tribal nations predate the U.S. by thousands of years and will continue to exist regardless of the U.S. springing up around them.

Indian nations have governed themselves since time immemorial and will continue to do so. As for tribal lands, if I were to move to Germany and buy land there, that land would not become part of the U.S. Germany would maintain some rights to it. Similarly, on most reservations, tribal land remains under tribal national jurisdiction (held in trust by the federal government) even if sold to a foreigner.

It would be nice to see the U.S. recognize more autonomy of tribal governments as independent nations. Indeed, since the 1970s, the U.S. government has recognized increasing tribal authority. I don’t know any tribal citizens who view our citizenships as making us victims. To the contrary, it is empowering to influence the destiny of your own people through exercising one’s civil rights and working to better the situations and autonomy of our Indian nations.


Tali November 22, 2010 at 8:34 pm

Just like what was tried here in Tennessee, these folks really need to prove their heritage first. None of these tribes in Tennessee can or will and that was why there was so much opposition to them getting recognition last year.
Are these tribes really tribes or recent fabrications like here in Tennessee? Are these folks claiming to be indians able to prove to an unbiased third party that they are indeed what they claim to be?? If so, I hope they get recognition because they deserve it. If not, they may they suffer the same fate as these fake tribes in our state.

Donna November 23, 2010 at 9:11 pm

the state has no business handing out ‘recognition’. The Nations/Tribes already exist and would be relatives of those claiming to be American Indians. REAL ‘recognition’ can only come in the form of acknowledgement from their own relatives. IF those seeking ‘recognition’ can prove their relationship, they should petition for enrollment. State “recognition’ without proof is meaningless and should be to anyone serious about their claims.

NDN_Woman November 26, 2010 at 12:22 pm

The tribes in Tennessee DID receive state recognition, and that recognition has not been taken away from them as of this date, even though there is a case in the Chancery Court in Tennessee regarding the status of the recongition. The case was brought by a lobbyist for the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, where state recognition is being challenged based only on a technicality: that there was only a 9 day notice given of the commission meeting that granted state recognition instead of a 10 day notice. Again, the tribes in Tennessee DO have their official state recognition unless the courts decide that the simple technicality of the meeting notice being 1 day off is sufficient cause to take away recognition. Kentucky, you Indians will need to work very hard against the self styled “activists” that you see here, such as Donna and “Tali”. This kind of “activisim” is all that they live for. Learn the facts and stand strong, just like Tennessee Indians are now doing to keep their hard won official recognition! My Best Wishes to all of you who dare to stand up for Kentucky’s own Indian people. Indians born in other states and members of other tribes need to keep their noses out of state recognition. Go home, because you are only guests in these state Indian people’s homes!

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: