In Depth: Lawmaker Pushing For Native American Recognition

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

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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.

By Tony McVeigh

Veteran broadcast journalist Tony McVeigh has been covering Kentucky politics since 1986, reporting for Clear Channel Communications before joining Kentucky Public Radio in 2004. His stories are aired by seven KPR affiliates, whose signals blanket the Commonwealth and parts of surrounding states. McVeigh began his broadcasting career at WRFC in Athens, Georgia, while earning a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism from the University of Georgia. He has extensive anchor/reporter experience, including stints with South Carolina Network and Georgia Radio News Service in Atlanta. In 2007 and 2008, McVeigh was named Best Radio Reporter in the Kentucky Associated Press Awards. He also picked up consecutive AP Awards for Best Political Coverage. McVeigh won four Kentucky AP Awards in 2009, six in 2010 - including Best Political Coverage and Best Hard News Feature - and three in 2011. His coverage of the 2007 Kentucky governor's race topped the Political Reporting category of the Society of Professional Journalists Green Eyeshade Awards of 2008. In 2009, McVeigh placed second in Courts and Law Reporting in the Atlanta-based competition for journalists in 11 Southern states. McVeigh is also the proud recipient of an Individual Liberty Award from the Kentucky Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. The Brunswick, Georgia, native is a die-hard UGA football fan who enjoys photography, astronomy, live music, hiking Kentucky's Red River Gorge and exploring the state's beautiful back roads. McVeigh and his big, fat, black cat Simon, reside in Frankfort, KY.