Our Opinion: In Tuscarora raids, state denies Native Americans' identity

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Authorities were doing their job when they raided the Tuscarora Nation's unlicensed casinos. They stretched the truth, however, when they described the Tuscarora as a "sovereign citizen group."

In a Monday news release, the State Bureau of Investigation and N.C. Alcohol Law Enforcement Branch used a label associated with tax protesters, con artists and conspiracy theorists to describe a Native American tribe that is not formally recognized as such by the state or federal government. 

First, the facts: ALE agents raided three casinos operating near Maxton, Pembroke and Red Springs in rural Robeson County, arresting 26 people and seizing more than 200 gambling machines along with cash, cars, guns and marijuana. The crackdown followed a year-long investigation.

Now, the spin: Officials made no mention of the group's identity as an Indian tribe or the fact that the Tuscarora Nation of North Carolina is a nonprofit organization registered with the N.C. Department of the Secretary of State.

A news release on SBI letterhead identifies defendants as "sovereign nation members" and "members of a sovereign citizen group." That calls to mind the folks who file phony liens on others' property and try to duck taxes, fines and penalties by relying on discredited legal fallacies.

"Sovereign citizens are anti-government extremists who believe that even though they physically reside in this country, they are separate or 'sovereign' from the United States," the FBI says on its website. "As a result, they believe they don't have to answer to any government authority, including courts, taxing entities, motor vehicle departments or law enforcement."

We grant that there's likely some overlap — perhaps some individual Tuscarora members subscribe to such myths, or maybe casino operators sought to assert tribal sovereignty despite not belonging to a recognized tribe. But denying the Tuscarora their Native identity is a grave sin of omission at best and a cynical smear campaign at worst.

Members trace their heritage to the Tuscarora Nation of the early 1700s, which East Carolina University history professor Larry Tise described as "the biggest, most powerful Indian group in North Carolina at that time." The Tuscarora people were scattered following a war with European settlers that ended in 1715.

A contingent resettled in New York and established a federally recognized Indian tribe also called the Tuscarora Nation. The North Carolina group claims a common ancestry, but its members have not bothered with the cumbersome, politicized process of tribal enrollment.

"We just want to be people and live as a people and to end this struggle over the rights of our lands, the remains of our ancestors and to be allowed to be who we are," Timothy Jacobs told The Wilson Times for a March 2014 story about the effort to reclaim Fort Nooherooka, the site of a bloody 1713 battle between Tuscarora and settlers situated in modern-day Greene County. 

The federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988 recognizes tribal sovereignty on Native American reservations, which allows enrolled tribes to operate casinos in states that forbid private gambling. Because the Tuscarora Nation of North Carolina is not recognized, it has no legal ability to operate a casino. Yet First Nations people are likely to engender understanding and empathy from the public regardless of their tribe's federal status.

"The sad thing about this is white Americans did this," Tise told the Times in 2014. "We created reservations and created giant ghettos where these Indians could live. It's a very sad history."

We're no great fans of creating victimless crimes and wonder whether these illegal casinos harmed a single soul who couldn't seek recourse through the courts, but we acknowledge that the law is the law. Robeson County sheriff's deputies, ALE and SBI agents and federal authorities who executed the raids couldn't turn a blind eye. The gambling parlors had to be shuttered. The arrests had to be made. 

In announcing those arrests, however, state officials should have provided context. 

The Tuscarora Nation operates a tribal government and says on its website that it has a summer camp and meal program for children. While sovereignty is reserved for federally recognized tribes, other Native American groups lacking that distinction, including the nearby Lumbee, have quasi-governmental bodies. 

In today's America, gender identity can be established by personal declaration, but it literally takes an act of Congress for an Indian to be called an Indian. What's wrong with this picture?