What is the smallest tribe of Native Americans in the United States? It’s more difficult to answer than one might imagine. The definition varies. It could be based on population or territory, as an example. I’ll look at both.
Recognition by the Federal government could add another dimension to the question. However, there are State-recognized tribes that do not meet Federal guidelines, and of course there are groups that have neither Federal nor State recognition that consider themselves tribes nonetheless. Federal recognition is very important though. It confers eligibility to receive substantial services from the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs — the BIA. There were 565 recognized tribes on their list as of October 2010 (list + supplement).
The Cahuilla people migrated to inland Southern California, in the vicinity of the current city of Palm Springs and the Salton Sea. They have lived there for upwards of two millennia although they have dwindled to probably fewer than fifteen hundred members today due to outside pressures and intermarriages. They are further split into several distinct bands. The smallest of these bands, and the smallest of all Federally-recognized tribes is the “Augustine Band of Cahuilla Indians, California (formerly the Augustine Band of Cahuilla Mission Indians of the Augustine Reservation)”. There were only 8 enrolled members as of 2002.
The Augustine Band has a small 20-acre reservation in Thermal, California, southeast of Palm Desert and south of Indio.
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The Augustine Band almost went extinct. According to a January 4, 1998 article in the Press-Enterprise, a newspaper covering inland Southern California, the band had only 34 members when their reservation was created in 1891. They were down to 11 federally-enrolled members by 1951. The last of those, Roberta Augustine, passed away in the 1980’s. By then the reservation had been abandoned for decades but the BIA continued to hold the land in trust.
Roberta had children, but she never enrolled any of them in the tribe. Her progeny had only the vaguest exposure to their Indian ancestry during childhood. A daughter, Mary Ann Martin, was raised primarily by her African-American paternal grandmother. She didn’t reconnect with her Native American identity until she was an adult. She enrolled as a tribe member, thus re-forming it, and established a tribal government along with her two brothers (who passed away tragically a few years later). She also moved her family onto the reservation and reestablished it in 1996.
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The entire tribe consisted of Mary Ann Martin, her children, and the surviving children of her brothers, when the casino opened in 2002. She was the only adult member of the tribe at that time.
The Augustine Band has the fewest members but it occupies bountiful acreage compared to the most diminutive reservation. That distinction probably goes to the Golden Hill Paugussetts of Connecticut who have a quarter-acre reservation in Trumbull. The whittling down of their original domain followed an unfortunate and all-too-typical pattern of encroachment and broken promises.
I need to add a couple of caveats. First, while they’ve been State-recognized since 1933 they are not Federally-recognized. the Golden Hill Paugussetts have sought that vital Federal stamp of approval for a number of years but it’s been denied by the BIA. Second, there are two sub-groupings of Golden Hill Paugussetts; the other one occupies 106 acres in Colchester, CT. You might reconsider the legitimacy of this "smallest" reservation if either of those caveats bothers you.
Behold the reservation. That’s pretty much it:
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The Intertubes contain many references to the 1/4 acre reservation in Trumbull. Only one of them, as far as I can tell, provides an actual street address. I will spare you the details of the circuitous route I took to uncover it but I will note that I used the really poor map in the BIA document to narrow down the spot to a neighborhood, then a series of articles in the Bridgeport Post from 1976 to learn the street name, and finally the Town of Trumbull website for the actual address. It received a single mention in the Minutes of the Water Control Authority, Town of Trumbull, CT, December 15, 2010: "427 Shelton Road — Remove tree $2041.25: Fred Mascia explained the tree is located on the Indian Reservation. The tree warden and DEP were on the site and approved the removal."
If Federally-recognized reservations are a consideration, Wikipedia says the two smallest are "the Seminole Trust Land in Broward County, Florida at 0.005175 km² (1.2788 acres), and the Likely Rancheria in Modoc County, California at 0.006236 km² (1.5409 acres)." Those are five and six times larger than the Golden Hill reservation in Trumbull, respectively.
I can’t believe I spent two hours trying to find that street address last night. The things I do to deliver quality geo-oddity knowledge to the deserving 12MC audience.