FROM THE ARCHIVE

BIA recognition staff fails pressure test

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FRIDAY, MAY 31, 2002

It has been said the Bureau of Indian Affairs acts only when a court or Congress directs them to do so. The staff which analyzes federal recognition petitions continues to prove the adage wrong.

Confronted with lawsuits involving several tribes that have waited years for an answer that will pave the way to federal funding, health, education and other benefits, the dozen or so researchers are under the gun to complete their work in time. Despite the pressure, and repeated promises made to federal judges exasperated with the glacial pace, they have failed to make good on their word.

The latest case affects two Connecticut tribes whose federal status has been pending for decades. They received a preliminary answer during the Clinton administration when then-Assistant Secretary Kevin Gover in March 2000 said they qualified for recognition.

Since then, numerous deadlines have come and gone for the BIA to make a decision on the Eastern Pequot Tribe and the Paucatuck Eastern Pequot Tribe. To be sure, not all of the delays are the fault of the researchers responsible for the tribes -- the state of Connecticut shares the blame for putting up roadblocks.

But the failure to follow through on time has a domino effect on others in the queue. Although final determinations are expected at the end of June, only three weeks behind schedule, tribes in Connecticut and Massachusetts are immediately impacted due to the BIA's limited resources.

It also highlights the checkered history of the Bureau of Acknowledgment and Research (BAR), the staff assigned with sorting out the monumental task of who is Indian and who is not. Since BAR began work in 1978, it has processed just 32 petitions, extending recognition to 14.

Meanwhile, dozens languish in the "ready" phase -- a misnomer because that means no one is working on the case. Hundreds more await the BIA when the ready list is exhausted.

As for the Pequot tribes, there never was a court-ordered deadline to finalize the decisions, according to BIA spokesperson Nedra Darling. She placed emphasis on a "projected" date that was promised as recently as April to a federal judge in Connecticut.

"We project we will not be able to meet the projected June 4 date," she said, referring to the BIA's original guesstimate.

A declaration filed in federal court by R. Lee Fleming, the BAR director, is more telling. He cites numerous reasons for needing more time, including court intervention affecting the Wampanoag Mashpee Tribe of Massachusetts and the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation of Connecticut.

But there are also resource limitations, Fleming pointed out. The two anthropologists and researchers working on the Pequot tribes must also work on other petitions, he said. A federal judge has ordered action on the Mashpee by June 21.

Then there's the issue of coordination with of Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb. Due to an extensive travel schedule, he'll only be in Washington, D.C., for eight business days this month before he is to sign off on the Pequot and Mashpee tribes.

Fleming, however, said drafts of the final determinations are circulating within the BIA for "internal review." McCaleb is to be briefed when his schedule permits, the May 22 declaration stated.

"This is a big workload for two final determinations," added Darling.

Relevant Documents:
R. Lee Fleming Declaration (5/22)

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