BOSTON — More than four decades after the Massachusetts Commission on Indian Affairs was created to give tribes a voice on Beacon Hill, the agency's governing board has all but stopped functioning.
The seven-member commission has struggled to fill three vacancies on the board. Often without a quorum of four members, the commission has not formally met in more than two years.
The panel is required to submit annual reports detailing its work to the Legislature, but the House and Senate clerks offices say they haven't received such a document since 2002.
Some attribute the commission's demise to the challenges of filling spots on a volunteer board, but others cite disagreements among the tribes and distrust of state government.
"Sadly, it's too common that Native Americans are denied a voice in government," said Hartman Deetz, an activist and member of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe. "We're the original inhabitants of this land, but never in this nation's history have we had a seat at the table. So, the fact that this commission isn't functioning is troubling but not surprising."
John "Jim" Peters, the commission's executive director, chalked up the inability to fill vacancies to the difficulty of finding people willing to serve.
"It's a challenge," said Peters, also a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag. "This is a volunteer board, and it's hard to find folks to give their time when they have to work."
Peters oversees the commission's administrative office, which operates as an agency of the state's Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development. He said the office does what it can to serve the state's tribes on a roughly $129,000 carve-out from the state's $43 billion annual budget.
The budget line item has increased by only $30,000 in the past decade, according to state figures.
Love T. Richardson, a commission member and clerk of the Nipmuc Nation Tribal Council, said the panel's efforts to represent an estimated 40,000 indigenous people in Massachusetts goes on, even without a fully functioning representative body.
"I'm extremely active on the commission, but I can't say that the other commissioners are," she said. "We really need the other tribes to step up and be active."
Efforts to fill vacancies have also raised issues of equal representation among tribes, Richardson said. Earlier this year, a member of the Nipmuc Nation volunteered to serve, she said, but withdrew amid concerns about one tribe dominating the commission. There are already two members of the Nipmuc Nation on the panel.
"Maybe, if we were more active as a body, people might know more about what we do and volunteer," Richardson said. "I'm passionate about what I do, but I'm only one person."
The commission was created under an 1976 executive order signed by Gov. Michael Dukakis. The order authorized state agencies to deal directly with the state's two federally recognized Wampanoag tribes, the Mashpee and Gay Head on Martha's Vineyard, while other tribes would be represented by the commission.
Under the law, the commission is supposed to act as a liaison between tribes and the state government on issues such as social services, employment, housing, legal aid and treaties. Tribal organizations are responsible for nominating candidates to serve on the commission, who are then ultimately nominated by the governor.
To serve on the panel, prospective members must be of Native American descent and represent one of the state's major tribes. They must also pass a state criminal background check and meet other criteria for serving on any state commission.
Commission members serve three-year, unpaid terms. The panel elects a new chairman each year.
Republican Gov. Charlie Baker has nominated at least four members to the commission — including two reappointments — since taking office in January 2015.
A Baker administration spokeswoman said the governor is "actively seeking nominations" from tribal organizations to fill the vacancies and "reconvene the commission."
Dissatisfaction with the Indian Affairs Commission led four state-recognized tribes to walk away from the table in 2010 to form a new council to deal with state government.
George Spring Buffalo, chairman of the Pocasset Wampanoag Tribe, helped create the new organization, the Affiliated Tribes of New England. He said the concern at the time was that the state commission was speaking only for Mashpee and Gay Head Wampanoags, and ignoring the other tribes.
"We didn't feel that the state, or especially the commission, was looking out for the other tribes," said Spring Buffalo, whose tribe descends from the legendary Chief Massasoit. "We had one of the first reservations in the country, so you would think we would have had more of a vote on the commission."
Amid the dysfunction of the Indian Affairs Commission, the Native American legislative agenda on Beacon Hill has not advanced much in recent years.
Perennial efforts to change the state seal and flag are an example. The flag features a Native American clutching a bow and arrow, with an arm above him holding a broadsword.
Native Americans view it a symbol of the brutal suppression of the region's original inhabitants under Colonial governments. Efforts to change it have met with little progress.
Likewise, campaigns to ban Native American mascots and imagery used by public schools and sports teams have also gained little traction. Native Americans protest the use of mascots such as "Redskins" and "Sachems" as derogatory, while communities defend them as a celebration of native culture bound in local tradition.
Spring Buffalo said a functioning representative body is important to advancing those proposals, but every tribe should have a seat at the table.
"We need to come together, as we have in the past, for the betterment of our people," he said. "That's the only way we're going to have more of a voice in government affairs."
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites.