Native Americans are often considered the “minority of the minority” in the United States because they have historically experienced a high degree of marginalization and discrimination, even within the broader category of racial and ethnic minorities. Despite being the original inhabitants of the continent, Native Americans have been subjected to centuries of forced displacement, cultural suppression and genocide at the hands of colonizers.

Treated as second-class citizens and exploited almost from the moment that explorers and colonizers first arrived on the continent in 1492, it wasn’t until major legislation was passed in the 1900s that Native Americans began to see some of their civil rights recognized.

  • 1924 with the Indian Citizen Act (Snyder Act) that granted citizenship to Native Americans
  • 1940s through 1962 – Granted the right to vote (per state)
  • 1978 American Indian Religious Freedom Act that gave freedom to practice their own religions

Additionally, Native Americans are the only racial minority group that must have a card or some kind of enrollment status with their federally recognized tribe that shows how “Indian” they are based on blood quantum ratios and/or proof of ancestry to the tribal community.

According to the 2020 Census, Native Americans and Alaska Natives make up only 2.9% of the total U.S. population. This small population size, combined with their historical marginalization, contributes to their status as a minority within a minority. The February column, “We are still here,” made mention of the statistics of the tribal populations in Louisiana. And the four federally recognized tribes — the Chitimacha Tribe of Louisiana, the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana, the Tunica-Biloxi Tribe of Louisiana, and the Jena Band of Choctaw Indians — are not exempt from the minority within a minority status in the state of Louisiana.

The long fight for Native American rights includes the battles over broken treaties, resistance to “Indian removal” from their homelands, the American Indian Movement protests of the 1960s and ’70s against high unemployment, slum housing, and racist treatment and the ongoing struggle for tribal sovereignty and economic support.

In Louisiana, the struggle included leaders like Hilaire “Eli” Barbry, who was instrumental in bringing about the union of  “the Biloxi tribe” with the Tunicas and then fought for federal recognition and other rights in the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act.

Documents naming Barbry chief of the Tunica-Biloxi stated that the tribes were coming together “for the purpose of union of the people of our race, to promote our welfare and to secure for ourselves and our descendant’s educational and religious training, to the end of our becoming better citizens of this American Nation …”

These were the goals of many of the tribes and individuals at the time, although the federal government continued to neglect or suppress Native American rights for decades to come.

You will note that the dates of congressional acts that finally recognized the inherent human and civil rights of Native Americans coincide with the dates of legislation that addressed racism and civil rights for other minority groups:

  • 1865 – The 13th Amendment abolished slavery and involuntary servitude.
  • 1868 – The 14th Amendment granted citizenship to all persons born or naturalized in the United States.
  • 1870 – The 15th Amendment prohibited the denial of the right to vote based on race
  • 1948 – Louisiana granted Native Americans the right to vote

Additionally, Native American tribes must go through a federal recognition process to be granted status as sovereign nations and have the ability to govern themselves. Many tribes, including those in Louisiana, have not only faced explicit discrimination as a minority group but concurrently had to fight to be considered a sovereign nation and govern themselves, even though they had their own traditional government structures since time immemorial.

The Chitimacha Tribe of Louisiana was the first of these tribes to gain federal recognition, which occurred in 1916 through an act of Congress. The Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana gained federal recognition in 1973 through an act of Congress, while the Tunica-Biloxi Tribe gained federal recognition in 1981 through the Bureau of Indian Affairs administrative process. The Jena Band of Choctaw Indians gained federal recognition in 1995 through an act of Congress.

Federal recognition is an important legal status for Native American tribes, as it provides access to a range of federal programs and resources designed to support tribal sovereignty, self-governance, and economic development.

Federally recognized tribes are also able to enter into government-to-government relationships with the U.S. government and have a voice in federal decision-making processes that affect their communities. Just like the time it took Native Americans to be recognized as more than just second-class citizens, federal recognition is a lengthy and complicated process.

Native Americans were subjected to a range of discriminatory practices, which have contributed to the marginalization of Native American communities and their status as a minority group within the larger society and other minority groups.

It’s important to note that the term “minority” can be problematic to some and is often used in a way that reinforces power imbalances and perpetuates stereotypes. Terms like “underrepresented” or “marginalized” acknowledge the systemic barriers that certain groups face without reinforcing the notion that they are inherently less important or valuable.

However, if you do the math between Native American rights and other minority civil rights, Native Americans, tribes across the United States, and Louisiana did go through generations of being viewed as less important and valuable.

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Brandi Liberty is an enrolled member of the Iowa Tribe of Kansas & Nebraska and a descendant of the United Houma Nation in Southern Louisiana. She is the owner of The Luak Group and its subsidiary...