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Federal Recognition
Federal recognition process subject of two hearings


A House committee is jumping head first into the controversial federal recognition process this week.

Filled with lawmakers from Western states with large Indian populations, the House Resources Committee has largely stayed away from the high-stakes debate. In the past two Congressional sessions, the panel spent just one day on tribal status issues.

That record changes today with an oversight hearing on the federal recognition and acknowledgment process by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Tomorrow, the federal status of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina will be discussed.

Both hearings come amid heightened scrutiny over the way tribes are recognized. Lawmakers from Eastern states with small Indian populations say the process is flawed while tribal representatives complain that it takes too long. The BIA is left in the middle to fend off the attacks.

Many of these issues will be aired today by a wide range of witnesses, including one lawmaker, several tribal representatives and the head of the BIA's recognition office. New assistant secretary Dave Anderson, who announced last week that he plans to deny federal status to a Michigan tribe, is not scheduled to testify.

Of the witnesses, Rep. Nancy Johnson (R-Conn.) falls into the Congressional critic category. She has introduced a bill that would give local communities $8 million to fight the BIA's recognition decisions. She has also requested a General Accounting Office investigation into the pending status of the Schagticoke Tribal Nation in her state.

These views, criticized by some as anti-Indian, will be balanced by representatives of four tribes that have encountered difficulties navigating the complex and lengthy recognition process. The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe of Massachusetts and the Shinnecock Nation of New York have waited more than 25 years to get their cases heard by the BIA.

On the other hand, the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe of California and the MOWA Band of Choctaw Indians of Alabama have received decisions. Both tribes were told by the BIA that they did not meet the criteria for federal status.

Also on today's agenda is Tim Martin of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians from Alabama, a tribe that was recognized by the BIA in 1984 after a century-long battle. Martin serves as executive director of the United South and Eastern Tribes, a group of 24 tribes from Maine to Florida, many of whom received recognition only in the last 20 years.

Katherine Spilde, a researcher with Harvard University's Project on American Indian Economic Development, is scheduled to testify as well. She is considered an expert on recognition, gaming and other Indian law issues.

Finally, the committee is to hear from R. Lee Fleming, the director of the Office of Federal Acknowledgment at the BIA. The office, which was elevated under the Bush administration's reorganization, has a budget of about $1 million and a staff of about 12 researchers, genealogists and anthropologists who process about two to three petitions a year.

Fleming is set to return to the committee for tomorrow's hearing on the Lumbee Tribe. The witness list is again filled with lawmakers and tribal representatives but a different set of issues will be raised. BIA head Anderson is not scheduled to testify.

The Lumbees were the subject of a unique termination-era law that both acknowledged their status as Indians but denied them federal benefits. As a result, they cannot seek recognition through the BIA. Rep. Mike McIntyre (R-N.C.) and Richard Burr (D-N.C.), two of the witnesses tomorrow, support a bill that would grant federal status to the tribe.

But the Eastern Band of Cherokees, whose principal chief, Michell Hicks, is scheduled to testify, opposes the measure. The tribe, also based in North Carolina, supports a rival bill that would lift the BIA prohibition.

Martin from USET is also back before the committee to present his organization's views. Even though several USET members received recognition through Congress, they want the Lumbees to go through the BIA. The Eastern Band is a member of USET.

In the Lumbee Tribe's corner will be chairman Jimmy Goins, Dr. Jack Campisi, the tribe's researcher, and Arlinda Locklear, a tribal member and attorney who was the first Native woman to argue before the U.S. Supreme Court. Campisi and Locklear previously testified before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, which has approved the Lumbee recognition bill.

If the Lumbees were forced to go through the BIA, a move they oppose, they would encounter the same difficulties others face. They would be placed at the back of the queue and wouldn't receive an answer for at least a decade, based on the BIA's current work rate.

Since 1978, the BIA has resolved more than 30 petitions for federal acknowledgment, rejecting a little over half of the applicants. With more than 300 groups seeking status, it would take the BIA decades to get through every case.

The overwhelming majority of those on the waiting list have not submitted enough information to be considered. A number of them will end up droppings their bids, as several have in recent years.

But there are more than a dozen groups that have completed their petitions and are on the BIA's "active" list for consideration. So even if the Lumbees were to complete an application, the BIA would go through the list on a first-come basis.

Both today's and tomorrow's hearing will take place at 10 a.m. in Longworth House Office Building, Room 1324. An audio-only link can be accessed at http://resourcesaudio.house.gov/1324.

Relevant Documents:
Witness Lists for This Week's Hearings (House Resources Committee)

Lumbee Recognition Bills:
Dole: S.420 | McIntyre: H.R.898 | Taylor: H.R.1408

Relevant Links:
House Resources Committee - http://resourcescommittee.house.gov
Official Lumbee Tribe website - http://www.lumbeetribe.com