Recognition report offers little surprises
Facebook Twitter Email

The decades-old process by which the Department of Interior recognizes tribal groups moves too slowly, lacks clear standards and often requires substantial financial and other resources, according to a Congressional report released on Monday.

But it is not, as detractors have claimed repeatedly, unfairly influenced by politics and casinos, said the General Accounting Office. While money definitely affects the process, investigators found no improper ties to the $10 billion dollar Indian gaming industry that has fueled the fire over recognition.

"Much of the recent controversy over recognition decisions, whether made by the Congress or the Department, stems from events that can only occur after a tribe is recognized," said the GAO in a 54-page report, referring to land-into-trust and Class III gaming.

Requested over a year ago by several Republican lawmakers, the report's actual contents come as little surprise to anyone. Decisions can take decades, guidelines are applied differently and the Bureau of Indian Affairs doesn't have enough resources to reduce its workload significantly.

Despite the problems, the BIA should not be stripped of its recognition duties, argues Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb. In a 9-page response to the GAO, McCaleb instead lays out an "action plan" for implementing reforms internally.

The BIA will provide "expanded" guidelines to petitioning groups and interested parties, said McCaleb. This should address questions of how much evidence, and what types, are required to satisfy the seven mandatory recognition criteria, he said.

Additionally, the BIA will provide a central repository of its recognition knowledge, offered McCaleb. Currently, the agency maintains a web page of some of its acknowledgment documents but will provide more information to the public, either online or in other electronic formats, he said.

Staffing and budget requirements are also of concern, said McCaleb. The BIA will immediately fill two vacant positions at the Branch of Acknowledgment and Research, the staff which handles petitions, and will begin evaluating the financial resources necessary to speed up the process.

Finally, McCaleb says the BIA will consider changing the regulations which outline the process. Potentially staving off Congressional bills that set up an independent recognition commission, McCaleb offers a number of suggestions that follow closely those reforms.

Included is a limit to the evidence a petitioning group must produce to show "continuous" existence. Currently, groups must submit documentation from first contact with non-Indians, which often requires substantial work dating back to Colonial periods.

McCaleb instead suggests this criterion could be pushed out to a later date. Bills pending in Congress have put the start date at 1900 and as late as 1934, when the Indian Reorganization Act was passed.

Another possible reform is putting deadlines on both petitioning groups and the BIA. Currently, petitioning groups can keep their application in a pre-review status for years, and by the same token, the BIA can delay action on a tribe.

McCaleb offers "sunset" provisions in both areas, again mimicking bills in Congress.

In the letter, McCaleb gives no specific timeline for making changes to the process. Deputy Assistant Secretary Wayne Smith will be charged with the evaluation, said a spokesperson.

"[Smith] has begun his analysis," said Keith Parsky. "The process he envisions will be collaborative."

The federal acknowledgment guidelines were first implemented in 1978 and later amended in 1994. Since then, the BIA has processed just 32 petitions, extending recognition to 14.

The BIA is not allowed to recognize tribes that were terminated. Only Congress can restore a terminated status.

Get the Report:
Indian Issues: Improvements Needed in Tribal Recognition Process (GAO-02-49, November 2)

Relevant Links:
Branch of Acknowledgment and Research -

Related Stories:
Deadline nearing for Chinook Nation (11/5)
Gover: Recognition study 'cooked' (11/1)
Reforming federal recognition (10/26)
Gover takes on recognition (10/25)
Conn. town encouraged by BIA dispute (10/17)
Norton urged to uphold recognition (10/11)
Chinook Nation faces reversal (10/3)
McCaleb reverses Clinton recognitions (9/28)