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