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Federal Recognition
BIA says recognition bill would lower standards

A bill to speed up the federal recognition process for tribes who have waited more than two decades for an answer would weaken the system, a top Bureau of Indian Affairs official said on Thursday.

Testifying before the House Resources Committee, principal deputy assistant secretary Mike Olsen said the Bush administration supported some of the goals of H.R.512. The bill was introduced by Rep. Richard Pombo (R-California), chairman of the committee, in hopes of providing finality for tribes whose recognition petitions have languished for years.

But Olsen criticized provisions that require the BIA to issue a proposed finding on the tribes within six months and complete a final determination within one year. He said the bill wouldn't give agency staff enough time to carry out the work needed to research thousands of pages of historical, anthropological and other documents

"We are concerned that the timeframes established by the bill would not allow the Office of Federal Acknowledgment adequate time to thoroughly review a petition, thereby lowering the acknowledgment standards," Olsen told the panel.

Olsen said the BIA was willing to consider other reforms to the slow-moving process, such as establishing its own deadlines. The agency has been able to speed up the system in recent years, Robin M. Nazzaro, a director at the Government Accountability Office (GAO) confirmed at the hearing yesterday.

But Pombo, who has taken a sympathetic view of tribes that have been in limbo, said the changes aren't enough. "I don't care how busy the [Interior] Department is," he said. "At some point over the last 20 or 30 years, there should have been enough time to move forward on these."

Pombo agreed with Olsen that a provision giving tribes a right of action in federal court could be viewed as drastic but said it was necessary. "I'm not too wild about bringing the courts into these, but [the tribes] have to have some remedy," he said. "There has to be some kind of hammer that follows," he added.

Other committee members, Republican and Democrat, backed Pombo. Rep. Dale Kildee (D-Michigan) said it was a matter of "justice" that the tribes get an answer, noting that Congress has provided more money to the BIA in hopes of fixing the system.

"I've been here for 29 years and have never ... seen a sense of urgency" at the BIA, he said. "That's very frustrating."

Harry Sachse, an attorney who represents the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe of California, also supported the bill. He blasted the "broken culture" that exists among the BIA and the Interior Department's Solicitor's Office.

"I think it's awful," he said the current system. "I think that your bill is correct," he told Pombo. "You gotta do something tough with the department or nothing will happen. We hear excuse after excuse after excuse."

Lance Gumbs, a member of the Shinnecock Nation of New York who serves as a tribal trustee, said the bill would help his tribe obtain justice. The tribe filed its petition in 1978, completed the documentation in the 1990s and has been waiting ever since.

"The status of our petition sits in what I call the Black Hole," he said. The tribe is number 12 on the BIA's "ready for active consideration" list but Gumbs said there has been no movement in two years.

"At this rate, without major changes to the process, the Shinnecock Nation will languish in an unrecognized state indefinitely," he testified.

Pombo's bill is directed at the 10 tribes who filed for recognition prior to October 17, 1988, the date of the passage of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. The petitions for these tribes remain in the "Black Hole" that Gumbs identified.

A nearly identical bill made it through the committee but never got a vote on the House floor. It was never taken up by the Senate.

Over the years, several lawmakers have offered bills to reform the system and nearly all have run into opposition from the BIA. One measure would have stripped the agency of its recognition powers and handed them to an independent commission. Others would have imposed timelines on the BIA or modified the recognition standards to help tribal groups.

In hopes of heading off some of the proposals, former assistant secretary Neal McCaleb offered an aggressive recognition plan in October 2002. It was primarily administrative, such as filling staff vacancies and improving technology.

Nazzaro of the GAO said the BIA had implemented much of the plan except for creating a website that provides all documentation related to the petitions. However, Kildee called the claim into question when he pointed out that the BIA never beefed up the recognition staff from 11 to 33 as the plan envisioned.

Olsen also confirmed that the BIA has lost some of its researchers and the OFA, formerly known as the Branch of Acknowledgment and Research, is now down to just nine people. In prior years, the staff hovered around 11 or 12.

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Federal Recognition Database (July 2004)

Relevant Documents:
BIA Strategic Plan GAO Report: Improvements Needed in Tribal Recognition Process |

Relevant Links:
House Resources Committee -
Rep. Richard Pombo -