FROM THE ARCHIVE

Getting there McCaleb takes on recognition

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FRIDAY, MARCH 15, 2002

Feeling the fire from Congress and the courts, Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb is starting to sound a lot like his controversial predecessor when it comes to federal recognition.

Forced to defend a measly budget, a meager staff and a backlog of cases, the Bush appointee has been using a lot of the same arguments Kevin Gover employed when confronted with the sticky situation. Competing priorities, lack of resources and an adversarial environment are among the reasons McCaleb has recycled in recent months.

At a Congressional hearing on Thursday, McCaleb added another one. It came as Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) lamented on the inability of eight tribes in Virginia to obtain federal recognition, a problem he attributed to a state law that "made it illegal to declare yourself to be an American Indian."

"You would be imprisoned if you would," he said. "As a result, this law made sure that there were no Indians because none were identified and that's how they took their land."

"They have nothing now," he said of the tribes. "And they have nothing from the Bureau of Indian Affairs even though they were some of the original tribes."

The statement was not lost on McCaleb, who noted that tribes have been subjected to extermination, termination and other destructive activities. "Part of the policy of our government was to eliminate the tribal estate," he said, recalling that his own tribe, the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma, was subject to allotment and had a figurehead leader until recently.

As a result, some tribal groups -- particularly in the East -- have trouble demonstrating that they meet some of the criteria for federal recognition, McCaleb admitted. In particular, he said it was difficult to show political and tribal continuity, replaying an argument Gover has used to justify his acknowledgment of a number of tribes throughout the country.

But don't count on McCaleb to repeat the actions of the Clinton administration. He's already denied recognition to a California tribe, reversed two decisions made by a Clinton official and is considering rescinding others.

And it's not a surprise that McCaleb would try and take into account history as he weighs a tribal case. During a radio appearance last fall, he reserved the right to reject recommendations made by the Branch of Acknowledgment and Research (BAR), the staff which investigates recognition petitions.

If you ask Gover, though, the Bush administration will eventually come around to his way of thinking. "I expect that if their experience with BAR is any like ours, BAR would not have credibility," he said in an interview.

Just when McCaleb will get "there" is a big question. It took Gover two years to finally admit recognition needed to be stripped from the BIA, a step McCaleb opposes.

But through all the debate, Moran had one final message as he asked McCaleb to help figure out how to get those eight tribes recognized.

"These people are going to be dead before we can secure any kind of justice for them," he said.

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