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On recognition, it's more of the status quo

Before he left office last December, former assistant secretary Neal McCaleb unveiled an aggressive plan to reform the way the Bureau of Indian Affairs handles federal recognition. It called for a tripling of the staff and budget for the division that decides who is and who isn't Indian.

But like McCaleb's other initiatives, the plan has since fallen by the wayside. In fiscal year 2004, there will be no new funds to reduce a backlog of petitions so large that some groups have been waiting decades for an answer on their federal status.

That doesn't mean there won't be changes for the Branch of Acknowledgment and Research (BAR), a team of about a dozen anthropologists, historians, genealogists and researchers who process claims for federal recognition. As part of the BIA's ongoing reorganization, the BAR staff will be elevated to a new office that will report directly to the assistant secretary.

The change reflects the controversy federal recognition has generated in recent years. For better or worse, it has become inextricably linked to gaming and land-into-trust, and critics say the only way to fix the broken process is to take it away from the BIA.

Until that happens, if ever, the BIA will maintain its control. According to the agency's 2004 budget justification book, the BAR budget will remain steady at about $1 million. The number of full-time employees will also stay the same.

With the funds, the staff hopes to resolve a total of six applications: two proposed findings, two final determinations and two reconsiderations. At this rate, the BIA won't reduce its current backlog for at least a decade.

In contrast, McCaleb's plan envisioned resolving the waiting list within three or four years. But he counted on a $3.18 million budget and a staff of 33 employees, each assigned to tackle a separate group of petitions.

Other parts of the plan have also faltered, including an Internet web site where significant federal recognition documents would be posted. McCaleb thought it would help reduce Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, which burden the already stressed staff.

But since the BIA hasn't been able to correct all of its computer security problems, the only way to get the reports is through FOIA or other queries. The plan's deadline of summer 2003 has come and gone.

Although more than 200 groups have asked for federal status, only 22 are in the final stages of the process. Of those, 10 are under "active" consideration while the rest are "waiting" to be considered "active."

Separate to the BAR budget is the "New Tribes" line item. This money is given to newly recognized tribes but for the past three years, the Bush administration has not requested any funds.

That leaves the Eastern Pequot Tribal Nation, the Cowlitz Tribe of Washington and three other tribes whose status was finalized in the last days of the Clinton administration without money to kickstart their government operations. After a transition period of at least three years, the tribes funded from the same pot of money used for the other 560-plus federally recognized tribes.

BIA Recognition Report:
McCaleb Letter (9/30) | BIA Strategic Plan (9/12)

Other Reports:
Allegations Involving Irregularities in the Tribal Recognition Process and Concerns Related to Indian Gaming (DOI Inspector General February 2002) | Indian Issues: Improvements Needed in Tribal Recognition Process (General Accounting Office November 2001)

Related Stories:
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)
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)
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)
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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