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Challenges await Anderson on federal recognition
Thursday, February 26, 2004

After Dave Anderson spoke to the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) on Tuesday, he took the usual questions about the budget, land-into-trust and the way the federal government works with tribes.

But the new head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs was also pressed on one of the most controversial issues affecting Indian Country today. Representatives of three tribes asked him to take action on the federal recognition process.

Mark Sebastian, vice chairman of the Eastern Pequot Tribal Nation of Connecticut, spoke about challenges to his tribe's status. Cheryl Seidner, chairwoman of the federally-recognized Table Bluff Rancheria in California, showed support for a tribe in her state seeking recognition. And Reggie Tupponce lobbied for a bill to acknowledge six Virginia tribes.

The concerns highlighted a few of the problems surrounding the recognition of tribes. Tribes are worried about opposition from state and local governments, lack of resources and a slow-acting BIA.

Anderson steps into this debate just like most of his predecessors: with little experience on the matter. But before he leaves, he will probably grow just as frustrated as Kevin Gover, who ended his three-year-run at the BIA during the Clinton administration with a call to strip the agency of its federal recognition powers.

That won't be happening any time soon. Prominent Indian advocates in Congress no longer back the idea and the Bush administration has elevated the office that handles federal recognition petitions to report directly to the assistant secretary for Indian affairs.

So in the meantime, Anderson has to deal with the issues raised at NCAI. One, of course, is the intense opposition that surfaces whenever the BIA nears a final decision on a tribe's status. Even though some petitions have been in the works for 20 or more years, state and local officials often claim they are blindsided by the BIA's rulings.

"These politicians in Connecticut are not hindering our right to self-sufficiency and our sovereignty because of the merits of our petition, but to stop the expansion of casinos," Sebastian told Anderson.

Although the BIA finalized a positive ruling on the Eastern Pequot Tribal Nation in June 2002, the state's attorney general, Richard Blumenthal, has tied it up with an administrative appeal. The battle is likely to end up in the courts, extending the tribe's 25-year struggle.

Another big issue facing Anderson is funding. Before he retired in December 2002, former BIA head Neal McCaleb sent a plan to Congress to triple the staff and funding for recognition. Currently, the Office of Federal Acknowledgment has about a dozen researchers, anthropologists and genealogists and a budget of about $1 million.

With over 300 groups waiting in line, the staff completes work on just one to three petitions a year. At this rate, it would take decades for the backlog to be reduced, provided that each group submits enough information to be evaluated.

The slow-moving process has many in California worried due to the large number of petitioning groups from the state. Since the federal recognition process started in 1978, the BIA has yet to get to any California tribe.

"They keep saying that California does not have enough manpower ... to get it started," Seidner said. "Something has to be done on that."

For those at the other end of the country, the outlook is not promising either. Many tribes in the East, like the Eastern Pequots, have been recognized by the states since the Colonial times.

Several tribes in Virginia fall into that category. The very first Indian reservation in the U.S. was established there by a 1646 treaty but the tribes don't have federal status.

A bill that is pending in the Senate and the House would change that. Although the BIA testified against it, Tupponce, a representative of the Upper Mattaponi Tribe, said recognition needs to come in time for the 400th commemoration of the European settlement at Jamestown.

"There are going to be people from all over the world coming to celebrate and commemorate this. We are the tribes that were there to help [the settlers] but we have not gained recognition yet," he told Anderson. "We have waited 400 years and we are on the doorstep of getting that federal recognition."

Anderson will encounter more tough questions like these in the coming months but mostly from critics of the BIA's favorable decisions. Two House committees, including one stacked with tribal opponents, will be holding hearings on the process.

The Bush administration, in its fiscal year 2005 budget, has not sought additional funds for the Office of Federal Acknowledgment. But the budget does include $560,000 to help newly recognized tribes get off the ground. Previously, the administration had slashed this line item.

"We've recognized a number of new tribes and they haven't had a base budget to operate under," Aurene Martin, the principal deputy assistant secretary, said in an interview earlier this month. "It's just the right thing to do."

Related Stories:
Date for House hearing on recognition not set (02/13)
Tribal foes in Conn. want to stop flow of money (02/10)
GAO asked to investigate Schaghticoke recognition (2/9)
Jeff Benedict: BIA out of control on tribal recognition (2/9)
Column: Federal recognition all about 'big wampum' (2/9)
House Resourcess to hold recognition hearing (2/6)
Gover praises BIA for not bowing to pressure (2/2)
Lack of evidence addressed in recognition bill (02/19)
Sweeping recognition reform bill offered (02/07)
At BIA, no recognition of new tribes (2/5)
BIA recognition still hard to prove for some (01/22)
McCaleb delivers aggressive recognition plan (10/03)
BIA role in recognition decisions under review (06/13)
BIA Budget: Doing more with less (3/26)
Bush budget cuts funds for new tribes (3/20)
McCaleb takes on recognition (3/15)
Inside the BIA, plenty of drama (3/4)
Ashcroft urged to charge BIA officials (3/1)
Solutions sought for 'hijacked' recognition (11/9)
Solutions sought for 'hijacked' recognition (11/9)
Gover: Recognition study 'cooked' (11/1)
Reforming federal recognition (10/26)
Gover takes on recognition (10/25)
McCaleb to listen 'closely' to recognition experts (8/9)
McCaleb decision sure to draw scrutiny (7/31)
BIA pushed to provide 'answers' on tribes (7/26)
McCaleb endorses BIA on recognition (6/14)
Gover's 'activist' legacy escapes McCaleb (6/13)
BIA has small goal for big problem (5/22)

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