Bill strips Bureau of Indian Affairs of federal recognition powers

Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) serves as chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee. Photo from Facebook

The Bureau of Indian Affairs will no longer be able to extend federal recognition to tribes under a bill introduced in the 114th Congress.

H.R. 3764, the Tribal Recognition Act, still requires the BIA to review petitions from interested groups. But Congress -- and only Congress -- would be able to make the final decision.

"The authority to recognize tribes is one that belongs to Congress, not the executive branch," Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, said in a press release.

Historically, tribes have secured recognition through treaties, acts of Congress, federal court decisions or executive orders issued by the president of the United States. But since 1978, the legislative and judicial branches have deferred to the BIA, whose Office of Federal Acknowledgment reviews petitions submitted by interesting groups. Final decisions are made by the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs.

The process, besides being slow-moving and costly, has been criticized as unfair to petitioners and interested parties like states and local governments. But reform bills in Congress have never gained much traction despite attention paid to the issue on Capitol Hill.

The Obama administration attempted to make major changes to the process, mainly in the criteria used to judge petitions. Criticism from politicians, tribes and states, though, prevented some of the more significant Part 83 reforms from appearing in a rule that was finalized in June.

And despite assertions by lawmakers about the legislative branch's role, Congress has been loath to exercise its authority -- the last stand-alone recognition bill was in the mid-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.

Bishop's bill, which was introduced on Tuesday, does not have any co-sponsors.

BIA Final Part 83 Documents:
Final Rule | Policy Guidance | Fact Sheet

Federal Register Notices:
Hearing Process Concerning Acknowledgment of American Indian Tribes (August 13, 2015)
Requests for Administrative Acknowledgment of Federal Indian Tribes (July 1, 2015)
Federal Acknowledgment of American Indian Tribes (July 1, 2015)
Hearing and Re-Petition Authorization Processes Concerning Acknowledgment of American Indian Tribes (June 19, 2014)

Related Stories
House subcommittee embraces two tribal federal recognition bills (09/30)
DOI finalizes new rule for appeals in federal recognition cases (08/13)
BIA adopts new policy regarding federal recognition process (06/30)
Lobbyists met at White House to discuss federal recognition (6/30)
BIA issues long-awaited update to federal recognition process (6/29)

Join the Conversation