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Recognition briefing paper at heart of latest feud
Wednesday, May 5, 2004

When Wayne Smith joined the Bureau of Indian Affairs three years ago, he was tasked with fixing the federal recognition process. A hard job, no doubt, considering the agency was under heavy fire for decisions made during the Clinton administration.

Smith, who was the number two at the BIA, knew that the process had become a bit too adversarial. Like his predecessors, he noticed that the staff in charge of sorting out who was eligible for federal status sometimes clashed with political appointees like himself.

So one of the ideas he developed was to change the way the staff worked with the assistant secretary of Indian affairs, a position then held by Neal McCaleb. Instead of giving the "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" recommendations that were the source of disputes, Smith said the staff would provide the pros and cons of extending recognition to a particular tribe.

"I'd like to see [the staff] more in a relationship of an advisor to the assistant secretary," he said on the Native America Calling radio program in October 2001.

Kevin Gover, the Clinton administration's assistant secretary whose recognition decisions are controversial to this day, said on the program that the proposal was "ideal." During his three-year tenure that ended in January 2001, he fought with the staff over recommendations he saw as too restrictive.

And so with little fanfare, Smith's suggestion was incorporated in the process. And until recently, no one paid much attention to it.

That all changed this week when the Connecticut's attorney general, Richard Blumenthal, filed a formal appeal of the BIA's decision to acknowledge a tribe in his state. In the appeal, he referred repeatedly to an internal memo that Smith's replacement, Aurene Martin, used before she made the final determination in favor of the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation.

The January 12 memo, called the "Schaghticoke Briefing Paper," was prepared by the Office of Federal Acknowledgment, the new name for the staff Gover had battled. Over the course of five pages, the document laid out the pros and cons of recognizing the tribe despite holes in the evidentiary record.

"Should the petitioner be acknowledged even though criteria of political influence and authority is absent or insufficient for two substantial periods, and, if so, on what grounds?" the staff wrote before laying out possible options -- and the consequences of following each one. A second issue, regarding an internal tribal dispute, was also identified.

"You can go this way, here's the good and bad of that. You can go that way, here's the good and bad of that," is how Smith described the process more than two years ago.

All those bad things are now being amplified by Blumenthal, who contends the memo represents everything that is wrong with the BIA. "The baldly result-oriented nature of the decision making process followed in the final determination is revealed in the 'Schaghticoke Briefing Paper,'" he wrote in the 197-page appeal.

The entire process takes center stage today as the House Government Reform Committee tries to get a handle on it. Members of the panel are sympathetic to critics of the beleaguered agency.

"Recent recognition actions by the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs on acknowledgement petitions filed by Connecticut tribes have raised questions about the objectivity and transparency of the recognition process," the Republican-led committee said in a background statement this week.

Theresa Rosier, who played a role in the Schaghticoke decision and was given the briefing paper along with Martin, will testify on behalf of the BIA. R. Lee Fleming, the director of the recognition office, will accompany her.

Earl Devaney, the Department of Interior's independent inspector general who released a report critical of the Clinton administration's handling of recognition, will also testify.

The rest of the witness list is heavy on Connecticut. In addition to Blumenthal, the leaders of three municipalities who are fighting tribes seeking recognition, will appear. Only one tribal leader, Marcia Flowers, the chairwoman of the Eastern Pequot Tribal Nation, is expected to testify.

Smith, who was fired in May 2002 over allegations of influence-peddling, will get his say too. In recent articles published in The Village Voice, he has been critical of the influence of casino money on the BIA. Gaming companies, or those seeking to get into the business, are bankrolling tribal recognition petition, often to the tune of millions, a situation decried by Jeff Benedict, the head of the Connecticut Alliance Against Casino Expansion, who is also on the witness list.

The hearing will be broadcast on the Internet. A video link can be found at http://reform.house.gov/GovReform/AboutUs/multimedia.htm. It will begin at 10 a.m.

Relevant Documents:
Schaghticoke Briefing Paper (January 12, 2004)

Relevant Links:
Schaghticoke Tribal Nation - http://www.schaghticoke.com

Related Stories:
BIA critical of main components of recognition bill (04/22)
BIA official warns of Congressional maneuvering (04/16)
Report: Martin bent rules to recognize Conn. tribe (3/12)
Challenges await Anderson on federal recognition (02/26)
Schaghticoke Tribal Nation: 'Today is our day' (1/30)
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 'throwing away a history of people' (12/06)
McCaleb delivers aggressive recognition plan (10/03)
BIA role in recognition decisions under review (06/13)
McCaleb ruling holds promise for state tribes (06/25)
McCaleb makes recognition history (6/25)
BIA project consumes recognition resources (06/12)
BIA recognition staff fails pressure test (05/31)
Striking Out: 'I think you get the picture' (4/17)
Getting there, 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)
Deadline nearing for Chinook Nation (11/5)
Gover: Recognition study 'cooked' (11/1)
Reforming federal recognition (10/26)
Gover takes on recognition (10/25)

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