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Sweeping recognition reform bill offered

The leaders of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee introduced a bipartisan measure this week to reform federal recognition but unlike earlier proposals, the bill doesn't strip the Bureau of Indian Affairs of its role in the controversial process.

Instead, Sens. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.) and Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) want the BIA to establish a review and advisory board to help out when thorny disputes arise, as they have in recent years. This still conflicts with efforts currently underway to elevate the Branch of Acknowledgment and Research (BAR) to its own office.

But the bill addresses a key sticking point of former assistant secretary Neal McCaleb. Although his predecessor, Kevin Gover, backed Campbell's earlier attempt to strip the BIA of its recognition duties, he opposed such a move.

"Notwithstanding the instances of failure at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, I think it is still the most sensitive and aware agency within the United States government," he told Campbell back in June 2001.

In introducing the Federal Acknowledgment Process Reform Act on Tuesday, Campbell said it addresses "criticisms of the FAP by increasing the transparency, consistency and integrity of the process, and at the same time removes some of the bureaucratic hurdles that have caused the process to be too costly and time-consuming."

The review board, he said, will give credibility to federal recognition decisions. Composed of nine independent experts in anthropology, genealogy, law and history, the BIA can call upon them to resolve complex issues. With the exception of the historian, all are required to have doctorates in their field.

"The board will give the Assistant Secretary greater assurance in the soundness of his determination, and will provide a more solid foundation for any later appellate review," Campbell said.

Gover, a presidential appointee, was criticized for not always agreeing with BIA researchers who evaluate evidence by groups seeking federal status. In six separate instances, he determined that the tribes were deserving, despite holes in the historical record.

The bill affirms the right of the assistant secretary to overrule the researchers. Campbell last year asked the Department of Interior's attorneys to clarify that power.

Beyond the review board, the bill makes other significant changes. Appeals of recognition decisions would head straight to court instead of the Interior Board of Indian Appeals (IBIA).

The BIA will not be required to respond to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests until a petitioner has submitted all paperwork and evidence. The bill authorizes the Department of Justice to assist in dissemination of public information and appropriates a total of $5 million over four years.

The BIA's fiscal year 2004 budget requests about $900,000 to carry out its recognition duties. The Campbell-Inouye bill beefs this up to $5 million a year from 2004 through 2013.

According to Teresa Rosier, the counselor to acting assistant secretary Aurene Martin, the Bush administration hasn't reviewed the bill yet. It was brought up at the United South and Eastern Tribes (USET) meeting in suburban Washington, D.C., on Wednesday.

Get the Bill:
Federal Acknowledgment Process Reform Act of 2003 (S.297)

Related Stories:
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Trust programs see historic increase (2/4)
Troubled Indian programs prompt GAO criticism (01/31)
BIA recognition still hard to prove for some (01/22)
McCaleb latest in long line of DOI departures (11/25)
McCaleb changed, yes, but little else did (11/22)
McCaleb delivers aggressive recognition plan (10/03)
BIA role in recognition decisions under review (06/13)
Dropping performance blamed on weak leadership (04/08)
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)
Ashcroft urged to charge BIA officials (3/1)
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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