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Federal Recognition
BIA critical of main components of recognition bill

The chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee on Wednesday said he wasn't happy with the Bush administration's response to his bill to reform the controversial federal recognition process.

For several years, Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.) has tried to reform the way the Bureau of Indian Affairs recognizes tribes. His efforts have had little success, with much of the opposition coming from the agency itself.

The pattern was repeated by the Bush administration yesterday. Aurene Martin, the second-in-command at the BIA, raised a series of challenges to Campbell's latest bill.

"There have been numerous statements that the process is broken but we at the [Interior] Department don't believe that's true although we do recognize that improvements can and should be made to the process," Martin told the committee.

Martin said the bill should include specific timelines to speed up the process. But most of the deadlines she suggested applied to petitioning groups, rather than the BIA. Tribes contend the BIA takes too long to make decisions, with some waiting up to 20 years for an answer.

Another concern centered on provisions to address gaps in the historical record due to attempts, by states or the federal government, to eliminate tribes. At an Indian law conference last week, Martin expressed sympathy based on her experience growing up on the Menominee Reservation, whose tribal status was terminated in the 1950s.

But in her testimony yesterday, she said the bill's attempt to help tribes that experienced similar actions would weaken and lower the recognition standards. She suggested that a tribe "without demonstrated tribal ancestry or historical tribal connection" could end up being recognized under the proposed guidelines.

Martin did acknowledge "positive innovations" contained in the bill, including technical assistance and grants to petitioning groups and other interested parties. She also said limiting Freedom of Information Act requests until a decision is made on a petition could speed up the process.

Yet Campbell called the administration's testimony on the bill "somewhat unhelpful and not very responsive to the main initiatives." "The bill before us does not liberalize the criteria that Indian petitioners must meet," he said.

Campbell also was critical of assistant secretary Dave Anderson for not showing up to testify before the committee. "I'm a little disappointed [in Anderson]," Campbell said. "He seems to have taken a hike on us. He's just not around most of the time when he should be."

Martin revealed publicly for the first time that Anderson, who joined the BIA in February, has recused himself on all federal recognition matters. Martin said the authority has been delegated to her by Interior Secretary Gale Norton.

During his confirmation process, Anderson said he would recuse himself only on matters dealing with a former business partner. The ex-partner, Lyle Berman, owns a company called Lakes Entertainment that is financing tribes seeking federal recognition and land for casinos.

But Anderson, according to Martin, won't make decisions on all recognition petitions due to concerns that gaming is influencing the process. "His previous activities with gaming -- he didn't want that to confuse the issue," Martin said. Anderson won't handle any gaming or gaming-related land acquisitions either, she added.

Anderson's most recent predecessors also testified yesterday. Neal McCaleb, who retired at the end of 2002, and Kevin Gover, who ran the BIA during the last three years of the Clinton administration, said they supported efforts to increase resources for the staff that handles recognition.

McCaleb suggested that the bill include a provision to end any future petitions. "There is little doubt in my mind that all indigenous peoples of this nation who can legitimately claim tribal status ... are now aware of the acknowledgment process and the consequences of recognition or lack of it," he told the committee.

Gover reiterated his belief that a lack of evidence should not necessarily be used to punish a petitioning group. "If we had evidence that a tribe was there in 1889 and we found evidence that the tribe was there in 1905, I was willing to assume that between 1889 and 1905, they were still there," he said. "They were there the whole time."

Campbell is the primary sponsor of S.297, the Federal Acknowledgment Process Reform Act.

Relevant Documents:
S.297: Federal Acknowledgment Process Reform Act | Written Witness Tesimony