National | Politics | Federal Recognition

Appropriations bill blocks new federal recognition regulation






An undated photo of the Pamunkey Reservation in Virginia. The Pamunkey Tribe is the most recent petitioning group to gain federal recognition through the Bureau of Indian Affairs process. Photo from Virginia Department of Historic Resources

An appropriations bill released on Tuesday prevents the Bureau of Indian Affairs from implementing reforms to the federal recognition process.

The BIA finalized the Part 83 reforms in June 2015 after more than two years of work. Even though several controversial provisions were removed, Republicans in Congress are still trying to block the changes.

The anti-reform effort surfaced last summer during consideration of the fiscal year 2016 appropriations bill for the Interior Department. But that measure died when Republican leaders pulled the measure due to an unrelated dispute over the Confederate flag.

The controversy appeared to be over when the fiscal year 2016 omnibus appropriations bill that cleared Congress in December failed to include similar language.


Section 125 of the fiscal year 2017 Interior and Environment Appropriations bill bars the Bureau of Indian Affairs from implementing reforms to the federal recognition process.

The prohibition, however, has been resurrected in the fiscal year 2017 Interior and Environment Appropriations bill. Section 125 of the 156-page measure bars the BIA from using federal funds to "implement, administer, or enforce" the new regulation.

The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies is meeting on Wednesday for a markup session on the bill. Assuming it's approved, it will be sent to the full House Appropriations Committee for review before going to the House floor.

Historically, it's been difficult for tribes and Indian interests to remove negative riders during the legislative process. But since Congress has failed to advance a stand-alone Interior appropriations bill for the last six years, floor battles of the kind seen in the 2000s have disappeared.

The Part 83 recognition reforms were written to help address bottlenecks in the federal acknowledgment process. The most significant change allows the BIA to rely on the year 1900 as the starting date for evaluating evidence submitted by petitioning groups. For tribes whose time of contact with European settlers dates to the 1600s, the process has become extremely cumbersome and lengthy.

Some petitioners have chosen to follow the 2015 revisions so blocking the rule will definitely have an impact. They would be required to go back to a prior version of the Part 83 process, an option that other groups have chosen to follow.

Bureau of Indian Affairs Final Part 83 Documents:
Final Rule | Policy Guidance | Fact Sheet

Federal Register Notices:
Hearing Process Concerning Acknowledgment of American Indian Tribes (August 13, 2015)
Requests for Administrative Acknowledgment of Federal Indian Tribes (July 1, 2015)
Federal Acknowledgment of American Indian Tribes (July 1, 2015)
Hearing and Re-Petition Authorization Processes Concerning Acknowledgment of American Indian Tribes (June 19, 2014)

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