Despite a mounting workload and repeated criticism, the Bush administration has not devoted new resources for federal recognition at the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
In September 2002, then-assistant secretary Neal McCaleb released an aggressive plan aimed at speeding up the recognition process. He sought to triple the staff of 11 anthropologists, genealogists and researchers who decide who is and who isn't an Indian
Exactly five years later, the program looks much the same as it did when it came under fire from members of Congress and the public. While the Office of Federal Acknowledgment has been elevated and its officials have received promotions and raises, there are still just 11 people in charge of more than 200 petitions.
"My own feeling is that the process doesn't work very well at this point," observed Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-North Dakota), the chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, at a hearing yesterday.
Dorgan plans to hold a series of hearings into what Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), the committee's vice chairman, called a failing of federal Indian policy. "One area that has lagged is the federal recognition process," she said.
Despite those sentiments, which were echoed by other committee members, Congress has failed to implement significant reforms to the process. Numerous proposals to create a commission dedicated solely to federal recognition or to speed up review of certain petitions have never been signed into law.
The lack of action has many tribes clamoring for relief. From the Lumbee of North Carolina to the Little Shell Chippewa of Montana, they are seeking legislative recognition in hopes of avoiding the BIA's slow-moving process, which can take 25 years or more to complete.
Yet Congress is loath to act in these cases as well. The last time a tribe gained legislative recognition was in 2000 but no hearings were ever held on the measure, which was inserted into an "omnibus" Indian bill in the last days of the Clinton administration.
Before that, a group of Michigan tribes and a South Carolina tribe won legislative recognition in the early and mid-1990s. These tribes all went through the hearing and committee review process, a practice that came to a halt after Republicans won control of Congress
"We did that before Republicans were elected, and we stopped the process because we saw bypassing the Bureau of Indian Affairs process was corrupting," Rep. Chris Shays (R-Connecticut) said in May when the House considered a bill to recognize six Virginia tribes.
The House ended up passing the bill but it has stalled in the Senate. The House also passed a bill to recognize the Lumbee Tribe, whose unique situation prevents the tribe from going through the BIA process, but the Senate has not taken action on it.
The inaction means tribes are stuck with the BIA. According to the Office of Federal Acknowledgment, there are seven petitions under active consideration and ten more
fully documented petitions in the queue.
Most of the seven petitions date from the 1970s, with one from the 1980s. Of the 10 waiting for action, the oldest dates to 1971.
With 243 more petitions not ready for review, it would take the BIA hundreds of years to get through the backlog, assuming the groups followed through. At one point, the Government Accountability Office calculated an average wait of 15 years for a petitioner.
Lee Fleming, the director of the Office of Federal Acknowledgment, said the Bush administration has requested more funds to beef up the program and is considering changes to the recognition process. He didn't disclose how much the Interior Department is seeking but the office's budget has historically been around $900,000.
"I want to find out what you have done as opposed to what you are thinking of doing," Dorgan told Fleming at the hearing.
"I'll be here," Fleming responded.
From the Indianz.Com Archive:
McCaleb delivers aggressive recognition plan
(October 3, 2002)
BIA Strategic Plan
Senate Indian Affairs Committee - http://indian.senate.gov
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