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Obama's influence felt at Lumbee recognition hearing
Thursday, March 19, 2009
Filed Under: Recognition

The election of President Barack Obama brought change to Washington on Wednesday as the Bureau of Indian Affairs, for the first time, endorsed federal recognition for the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina.

After years of opposing legislative recognition for the largest tribe east of the Mississippi, the BIA's new position was reflected in testimony to the House Natural Resources Committee. A senior official relayed the administration's unequivocal support for H.R.31.

"As a matter of equity and good conscience, it is time for the Lumbee Tribe to be recognized," said George Skibine, a career employee who is in charge of the BIA.

When asked by a committee member how the shift in thinking came about, Skibine wasn't able to single out a particular person. But it was clear from his answers that the direction came from the top levels at the Interior Department.

"The decision was made by the political leadership at Interior," testified Skibine, pointing to staff to Secretary Ken Salazar

Salazar, as another member pointed out, works for Obama. And it was the president who promised on the campaign trail to support the tribe's long-running federal recognition bid.

Although a version of the bill passed the House in 2007, Democratic leaders responded to the message. Rep. Nick Rahall (D-West Virginia), the chairman of the committee, made the bill the first on his agenda for the 111th Congress.

But Republicans continue to oppose legislative recognition as a matter of principle. They want the tribe to go through the BIA's lengthy review process, which could take years, or even decades, to complete.

At least one Democrat agrees. Rep. Heath Shuler (D-North Carolina), who testified yesterday, has introduced a rival bill, H.R.839, to allow the state-recognized tribe to submit a petition to the BIA for consideration.

The BIA route is currently not available to the tribe because Congress, during the height of the termination era in the 1950s, passed a law that described the Lumbees as "Indians" but denied them the benefits associated with federal status.

Shuler's district includes the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, whose leaders have questioned the legitimacy of the Lumbee Tribe. Shuler said he didn't know how the Eastern Band gained federal recognition -- it was through an act of Congress -- when asked by Rahall.

The United South and Eastern Tribes also opposes legislative recognition, the group's executive director told the committee. But Michael Cook acknowledged that several USET members, who own some of the largest casinos in the country, gained federal status through acts of Congress.

The Lumbee bill bars the tribe from engaging in gaming, which is currently outlawed in Virginia. The prohibition sticks even if the state changes its laws in the future, said Skibine, who also serves as director of the BIA's Office of Indian Gaming Management.

Skibine suggested an amendment to the bill to respond to the U.S. Supreme Court in Carcieri v. Salazar. He said Congress should make clear that the tribe is eligible for the land-into-trust process.

The House is likely to pass the bill again. The tribe has supporters of both parties in the Senate but the bill didn't make it to the floor during the last Congress.

Committee Hearing:
Full Committee Legislative Hearing On H.R. 31 And H.R. 1385 (March 18, 2009)

Related Stories:
Obama administration backs Lumbee recognition (3/18)
Audio: House hearing on federal recognition bills (3/18)
Witness list for hearing on recognition bills (3/17)
House Resources hearing on federal recognition bills (3/16)
Road to Recognition: Rival Lumbee bill introduced (3/11)
Bill to recognize Virginia tribes introduced in House (3/10)
Road to Recognition: Lumbee Tribe seeks housing (3/10)
Road to Recognition: Lumbee Tribe continues push (3/9)
Indian inmates fight over Lumbee recognition (2/24)
Lumbee Tribe recognition bill introduced again (01/15)

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