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House panel sympathetic to tribes on recognition
Thursday, April 1, 2004

Members of a Congressional committee promised on Wednesday to take a more active role in reforming the controversial federal recognition process at the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Rep. Richard Pombo (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Resources Committee, led a lengthy hearing on the topic and said he was appalled by the waits some petitioning groups have endured. Representatives of four tribes testified of delays, some lasting more than 20 years, in getting their cases heard.

"That in my mind is beyond any bureaucratic mess-up," Pombo declared. "It is just something that this committee is going to have to deal with in one way or another."

Pombo and other members of the panel were sympathetic to the complaints aired by the tribes. Democrats and Republicans said the BIA should speed up its decision-making process and make it more fair to those seeking federal recognition and the benefits such status entails.

"BIA seems to now stand for Bureaucratic Indecision Always," said Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R-Ariz.), the Republican co-chair of the Congressional Native American Caucus.

"BIA should be held accountable," added Rep. Joe Baca (D-Ariz.), who said the agency's initials should stand for "bureaucratic inaction." "It's appalling to see that it goes so long."

Members of the committee were interested in finding solutions, some of which were offered up by the tribal witnesses. But some lawmakers rejected a bill, introduced by a Connecticut Congresswoman who is opposing the federal recognition of a tribe in her district, that would give $8 million to local communities to fight the BIA.

"This idea that the tribes are somehow with all this money and power and all this ability, and the local towns have nothing -- I think it's just the opposite," said Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.). "I don't think it makes any sense to give the money to the towns to be able to make their case because we don't give the money to the tribes to make their cases."

Glenn Marshall, president of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe of Massachusetts, called on the BIA to finalize work on the 27 petitions that were submitted before 1988, the passage of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. "We certainly never expected it would take more than 30 years," he said. The tribe submitted a letter of intent in 1975, three years before the BIA finalized regulations governing the process.

Lance Gumbs, trustee for the Shinnecock Nation of New York, said his tribe file for federal status in 1978. Although the tribe is currently pursuing casino plans, he said money has not played a role in the quest for recognition.

"Our petition was stalled in part because we could not afford the high cost of completing our application," he told the committee.

The Wampanoag and Shinnecock tribes have yet to receive an answer from the BIA. But lawmakers heard from two tribes that were told they did not meet the standards for federal status.

The Muwekma Ohlone Tribe of California was denied recognition in September 2002 by former assistant secretary Neal McCaleb. Rosemary Cambra, the tribe's chairwoman, said the decision was unfair because BIA staff and their attorneys in the Solicitor's Office have been "completely evasive, fraudulent and outright hostile" in handling the petition.

Wilford Taylor, chairman of the MOWA Band of Choctaw Indians of Alabama, saw his tribe rejected in 1997. He said the BIA did not evaluate the application in a manner consistent with another Choctaw band that received recognition.

"The federal acknowledgment process was originally designed to be fair, objective and neutral," he testified. "Today, the process is dehumanizing and insulting."

Taylor and the other witnesses, including Tim Martin, a member of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians of Alabama, which won recognition in 1984, and Kate Spilde, a researcher from Harvard University's Project on American Indian Economic Development, gave suggestions for improving the process. They called for additional resources, more staff, clearer guidelines and Congressional oversight of the BIA.

Rep. Nancy Johnson (R-Conn.) sought an entirely different solution: a moratorium on future decisions until reforms are made. She said Congress should bar third-party funding of petitions and that local communities need federal funds to compete.

"Something has gone terribly wrong with the tribal recognition process," she said. "It has become driven by casino money -- big, big bucks."

The BIA's sole witness was R. Lee Fleming, director of the Office of Federal Acknowledgment. With additional appropriations, he said the staff has has issued 14 recognition decisions in the past three years. Six of those were proposed findings, another six were final decisions and the other two were reconsiderations.

In the past, BIA staff evaluated an average of 1.3 petitions per year but is now up to an average of nearly 5 per year. The changes, Fleming said, reflect "a tremendous increase in our productivity."

Funds allocated in fiscal years 2003 and 2004 allowed the BIA to hire two sets of contractors, he added. One set specializes in fulfilling numerous Freedom of Information Act and records request. The other set helps staff researchers evaluate the petitions.

The committee yesterday did not examine any specific legislative proposals. Some members of Congress want the BIA's regulations encoded into law while others want recognition taken away from the agency and handed to an independent commission.

Any improvements are welcome, Gumbs of the Shinnecock Nation said, because 40 percent of petitioning groups give up on the BIA. "It is a process that is designed to have Indian nations fail," he told the committee. "It's as simple as that."

Relevant Documents:
Written Witness Testimony (March 31, 2004)

Related Stories:
House committee takes up recognition process (4/1)
House panel holds hearing on Lumbee recognition (3/22)
Challenges await Anderson on federal recognition (02/26)
Lumbee Tribe makes case for federal recognition (09/18)
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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)
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Inside the BIA, plenty of drama (3/4)
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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)
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