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Internal tribal disputes an issue for Obama nominees
Tuesday, December 2, 2008
Filed Under: Politics

Nominees to the Interior Department should be asked about tribal membership and leadership disputes, the Government Accountability Office said in a recent report.

According to the GAO, internal tribal disputes "seem to be occurring more and more frequently." The report recommends nominees be asked about their ability to resolve these controversial matters.

"What experience do you have in working with tribal leadership and trying to resolve these types of disputes or in trying to prevent them?" the report states.

The GAO hasn't released any investigations into internal tribal disputes. But the inclusion of the question -- one of three directly related to Indian affairs -- indicates it's on the radar of key members of Congress who will consider president-elect Barack Obama's executive branch nominees.

"This letter provides you with a series of questions that Senate committees of jurisdiction could use to help determine the management experience and capabilities of upcoming nominees," the GAO told Sen. George Voinovich, a senior Republican on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

The other two questions cover topics that have been the subject of recent GAO reports. They include the land-into-trust process and the backlog of maintenance at Indian schools and at reservation irrigation projects.

Additionally, the GAO included tribes in questions about the Clean Air Act and the sharing of information to prevent terrorist attacks.

But the closest the GAO has come to tribal membership and leadership disputes was in a report that examined the federal recognition process. In some cases, disputes can delay consideration of a petition or lead to confusion in the process.

Still, Congress has been reluctant to step into such disputes out of respect for tribal sovereignty. Tribes retain the right to determine their membership and to determine their leaders.

A controversial incident involving the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma shifted the landscape after the tribe voted in 2007 to exclude the descendants of the Freedmen, or former slaves. Some members of Congress sought to cut off federal funds to the tribe unless the Freedmen were restored to citizenship.

Other high-profile disputes -- especially those involving gaming -- have caught the eye of Congress as well. The Senate Indian Affairs Committee in 2002 held an unusual hearing into a small California tribe whose leaders were fighting over a proposed casino.

The feud led former Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colorado), who was the chairman of the committee at the time, to push for a "technical" amendment to the Indian Reorganization Act that essentially resolved the dispute without referring to it. Both factions had retained teams of lobbyists and lawyers in a prelude of sorts to the Jack Abramoff scandal.

A slew of disenrollment disputes among wealthy California tribes have generated significant media coverage but so far members of Congress have not been willing to get involved. Officials at Interior have shied away too, with the exception of the San Pasqual Band of Mission Indians, whose constitution gives the Bureau of Indian Affairs authority over membership matters.

According to Indian activists, California tribes have removed at least 1,500 people from their rolls in recent years. One of them was Bob Foreman, who served as the first chairman of the Redding Rancheria before he was disenrolled in 2004. Foreman died on November 19 without seeing a resolution to his struggle.

Obama has yet to announce his pick for Secretary of the Department of the Interior, although at least two members of Congress who have experience in Indian issues have been the subject of speculation. Obama also gets to name a new assistant secretary for Indian affairs.

The GAO's other questions on Indian issues follow:
"Having land held in trust for the benefit of tribes or individual Indians is important for tribal sovereignty and economic development. GAO and the department’s Inspector General have reported that it usually takes over a year for the Bureau of Indian Affairs to process land in trust applications for both gaming and nongaming purposes. One application that GAO reviewed took almost 19 years. What experience do you have with developing an action plan to address these challenges? How would you instill a priority and a sense of urgency in the department to strengthen its performance in this area?"

"Many tribes, individual Indians, and non-Indians rely on irrigation projects managed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs to provide water for their agriculture. In 2006, GAO reported that the estimated maintenance backlog for 16 Indian irrigation projects was about $850 million, and there are maintenance backlogs for Indian schools. How do you balance priorities to ensure that regular maintenance happens, and what steps do you believe should be taken address these maintenance backlogs?"

GAO Report:
Confirmation of Political Appointees: Eliciting Nominees' Views on Management Challenges within Agencies and across Government (November 24, 2008)

Related Stories:
BIA tells San Pasqual Band not to remove group (12/2)
Strong outlook for Indian Country under Obama (11/21)
NIGC prepares for transition to new administration (11/19)
Indian gaming issues up for Obama's review (11/18)
NAHASDA clears Congress with Freedmen provision (9/26)
Judge won't free tiny tribe from BIA oversight (4/21)

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