FROM THE ARCHIVE

BIA role in recognition decisions under review

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THURSDAY, JUNE 13, 2002

In response to controversies during the Clinton administration, the Department of Interior has been asked to clarify whether the recommendations of federal recognition researchers can be overturned.

Citing "substantial publicity" in recent years, Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.), vice-chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, asked the Bush administration last month for its position on the issue. Legal clarification on the role of the Assistant Secretary in determining which tribes are deserving of federal recognition is being sought from Solicitor Bill Myers.

"Clearly, the Assistant Secretary is entitled to place some degree of reliance on the recommendations of his professional staff," Campbell wrote in a May 2 letter. "At the same time, it must be recognized that the acknowledgment decisions are matters that carry serious consequences for petitioning groups and their members."

Campbell's letter doesn't suggest a view one way or another. Publicly, he has allowed for discretion, particularly for tribal groups whose history was stripped away "at gunpoint."

"I find it ironic that descendants of Native people who have lived in of North America for thousands of years are the only Americans that must be 'documented' to prove their status," he said at a hearing on Tuesday.

But with the media, courts and state and local governments jumping into the debate, Campbell was clearly concerned with several decisions made during the Clinton administration. Former assistant secretary Kevin Gover and his deputy Michael Anderson extended preliminary and final federal recognition to six petitioning groups over the objection of staff researchers.

Neal McCaleb, the current assistant secretary, reversed decisions in two of those instances. He also declined to acknowledge a third group based on the recommendations of the Branch of Acknowledgment and Research (BAR), the group which analyzes petitions.

At the same time, McCaleb too has stated his right to overrule although a Bureau of Indian Affairs spokesperson downplayed any sort of conflicts that may occur. "He doesn't plan to be in that situation because he's working closely with the staff," said Nedra Darling.

Additionally, BAR staff members openly defend the role of their boss. Researchers who worked on two Pequot petitions sided with Gover when his decisions came under attack by the state of Connecticut.

Privately, the staff is known to grumble. BAR Chief Lee Fleming drafted internal memos objecting to Gover's actions on the Chinook Nation of Washington, whose status is on hold based on those concerns.

The staff also characterized their working relationship with Clinton political appointees as strained and difficult. An internal investigation cited unnamed researchers who complained of an atmosphere of "pure hell" during the final month of the administration.

But one point of contention dismissed by the BIA was the notion that financial and political interests impacted the process. Media reports tied the Clinton administration decisions to casino interests.

"In my opinion, there is no undue influence," said Mike Smith, director of the Office of Tribal Services, which oversees Fleming and his staff.

Myers has yet to respond to Campbell's letter but Scott Keep, an attorney within the Solicitor's office, said an answer was forthcoming. Keep did hint at what the response might say.

"It is his decision, ultimately, to make," he said of the assistant secretary.

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