House subcommittee embraces two tribal federal recognition bills

Chief Stephen Adkins of the Chickahominy Tribe. Photo by Dan Addison / University of Virginia

Congress hasn't extended federal recognition to a tribe in more than a decade but that could be changing as two bills saw widespread support at a hearing on Capitol Hill on Tuesday.

Lawmakers from both parties heaped praise on legislation to recognize the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians in Montana and six tribes in Virginia. But it was Republicans who took the lead in pushing for passage of the H.R.286, the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians Restoration Act, and H.R.872, the Thomasina E. Jordan Indian Tribes of Virginia Federal Recognition Act.

"It's unbelievable today that we are still fighting for them to be federally recognized," Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Virginia), the sponsor of H.R.872, said at hearing before the House Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs.

The Republican embrace stands in contrast to the one given by Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyoming), the chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. Although he didn't block consideration of both bills when they came up at a business meeting in March, he reiterated his opposition to Congressional recognition.

Indianz.Com SoundCloud: House Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs Legislative Hearing on Federal Recognition Extension

"I've stated my position on legislative recognition before," said Barrasso, who also serves as chairman of the Senate Republican Policy Committee, the policy research arm for the Republicans in the Senate. "There is an exacting administrative process that is the proper course of action for all groups seeking recognition."

The Senate versions of both bills S.35, for the Little Shell Chippewa Tribe, or S.465, for the Virginia tribes, have been reported but have not yet been brought up for consideration. Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) -- who referred to the other body as the "dark hole" -- urged the tribes and his colleagues to focus their efforts there if they want to see action on both measures.

"I'm going to suggest you concentrate on that, and that goes for my side of the aisle over there," said Young, who serves as chairman of the subcommittee. "There's no reason why the dark hole can't produce something once in a while so we can get something done."

Both bills also received support from the Obama administration even though the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the past has either taken a neutral position or has outright opposed recognition bills. In the case of the Virginia tribes, the Bush administration urged them to go through the Office of Federal Acknowledgment even though the process would likely take decades for all of them to complete.

Chief Little Shell was a leader of the Little Shell Tribe in the late 1800s. Photo from Turtle Mountain Chippewa Heritage Center

"Let me just cut to the chase and tell you we don't object to either one of these bills before Congress," Assistant Secretary Kevin Washburn, the head of the BIA, testified.

The Little Shell Chippewa Tribe followed the BIA's process only to see a significant setback in 2009 after winning a positive preliminary ruling during the Clinton era. Even though a reconsideration is pending -- meaning the tribe could still secure federal status -- Washburn pointed out that the new Part 83 federal recognition reforms would likely prevent new petitioning groups from suffering that same fate.

"We have toiled through the Part 83 process for almost 40 year and it feels like we've taken one step forward then two steps back," Chairman Gerald Gray told the subcommittee.

The tribe has the backing of the executive and legislative branches in Montana, the state's entire Congressional delegation and all of the tribes in Rocky Mountain region. Gray serves as the secretary of the Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council.

Historic photo of Mattaponi students at the original Sharon Indian School in Virginia. Photo from Upper Mattaponi Tribe

H.R.286 would recognize the tribe, place about 200 acres in trust and define a service area in Blaine, Cascade, Glacier, and Hill counties in Montana, according to the hearing memo. Most of the tribe's members currently live in Great Falls and in the surrounding area.

The Virginia tribes also have support in their home state. Even though they welcomed the first European settlers at Jamestown and signed some of the first treaties with foreign nations, their status has never been formalized and their attempts to compile documents for the BIA's process face hurdles due to racist laws and policies in Virginia that denied the existence of their peoples.

"The fact that we were so prominent in early history and then so callously denied our Indian heritage is the story that most don't want to remember or recognize," Chief Stephen Adkins of the Chickahominy Tribe told lawmakers.

H.R.872 would recognize the Chickahominy Tribe, the Chickahominy Indian Tribe - Eastern Division, the Upper Mattaponi Tribe, the Rappahannock Tribe, the Monacan Nation and the Nansemond Tribe. The bill establishes service areas for each tribe and bars them from engaging in gaming under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act or any other laws and regulations, according to the hearing memo.

The subcommittee has not yet scheduled a markup on either bill. No one spoke in opposition at the hearing yesterday.

Congress has not passed a stand-alone federal recognition bill since the 1990s. Two tribes were able to secure legislative recognition in 2000 as part of an omnibus Indian package that passed in the final days of the 106th Congress and was signed into law during the final days of the Clinton presidency.

Committee Notice:
Legislative Hearing on Federal Recognition Extension (September 29, 2015)

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