National | Politics | Federal Recognition

Republicans push for federal recognition bill despite opposition

Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) gestures at a House Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs hearing in Washington, D.C., on October 28, 2015. Still image from House Committee on Natural Resources / YouTube

Republican lawmakers vowed to move forward with a controversial federal recognition bill on Wednesday despite a lack of support from Indian Country and the Obama administration.

The United South and Eastern Tribes and the Ute Tribe of Utah are among the first to register official opposition to H.R.3764, the Tribal Recognition Act. The bill, which was just introduced last week, strips the Bureau of Indian Affairs of its ability to recognize tribes.

Yet Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), the chairman of the House Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs, brushed aside the criticism. He accused unnamed lobbyists of influencing tribes to oppose the fast-moving measure.

"What bothers me is that Indian Country is not trying to solve problems," Young asserted at the hearing on Capitol Hill even though USET, the National Congress of American Indians and other tribal organizations have been calling for reforms to the federal recognition process for decades.

Indianz.Com SoundCloud: House Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs Legislative Hearing on H.R. 3764

When Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-California), the top Democrat on the subcommittee, tried to explain why tribes oppose the bill, Young interrupted.

"Who do you think ginned these letters up?" Young asked.

"I think the Utes are deciding for themselves," Ruiz responded.

Young didn't seem to like the answer. He suggested that the tribe -- or anyone else from Indian Country who opposes the measure -- could face retribution for their positions.

YouTube: Legislative Hearing on the Tribal Recognition Act of 2015

"When they get a chance to testify, we'll find out who represents them here," Young said, again referring to unnamed lobbyists.

Assistant Secretary Kevin Washburn, the head of the BIA, relayed the Obama administration's strong opposition to the measure. He questioned why he was the sole witness at the hearing -- no tribal leaders or petitioning groups were invited.

"It was like legislation by ambush because I never knew you were working on this bill," Washburn said of Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), who introduced the measure on October 20 while hundreds of tribal leaders were at the NCAI annual convention in San Diego, California, last week. "I'm impressed you were able to keep it under wraps in a place like this."

Washburn said the bill places the status of dozens of already recognized tribes in doubt because it asserts that Congress -- and only Congress -- can determine which groups are worthy of a government-to-government relationship. By putting the decision-making power solely in the hands of 535 lawmakers, who remain unable to carry out basic functions like approving a budget for the federal government, petitioning groups might never get an answer from the United States.

Assistant Secretary Kevin Washburn, right, with National Congress of American Indians President Brian Cladoosby at the organization's annual conference in San Diego, California, on October 19, 2015. Photo by Indianz.Com

"It might just come over and just hang out there and no one ever get a firm no or a firm yes," Washburn testified.

Bishop, who serves as chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, promised an additional hearing to solicit the views of "Native Americans" on the bill. He also said he was open to changes regarding the criteria that will be used to judge petitions.

However, like other Republicans, Bishop vowed to move forward because he wants Congress to assert its authority. "The standards should be set in statute so that everyone knows what those [standards] are," he said.

The BIA's Office of Federal Acknowledgment would be required to evaluate petitions under the criteria set by law. But that would be the extend of the agency's role.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Assistant Secretary Kevin Washburn visited the Shinnecock Nation of New York on October 1, 2015, for the launch of the Tribal Solarthon. The Shinnecock Nation is the last tribe whose federal recognition was approved and finalized by the BIA after an administrative appeal. Photo from Shinnecock Nation / Facebook

"Ultimately it would come back to Congress to fulfill the Congressional responsibility of actually making the designation," Bishop said.

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 the legislative and judicial branches have deferred to the BIA since 1978, when the federal acknowledgment process was established.

The slow-moving and costly process has been criticized almost from the start and it typically takes decades for groups to complete. Reform efforts, though, have not gained much traction either in Congress or in Indian Country.

That changed when the Obama administration announced a series of significant changes to the process, including the criteria used to judge applications. Opposition from Congress and some tribes -- some of whom voiced complaints at a hearing in April -- prompted Washburn to scale back the Part 83 reforms that he finalized them in June.

Former Chief Kevin Brown of the Pamunkey Tribe, center, is blessed with an honor song during the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development's New Day Now rally at the U.S. Capitol on June 16, 2015. The Pamunkey Tribe is the last group to win federal recognition from the BIA but its status has not been finalized due to a pending appeal. Photo by Indianz.Com

At the hearing yesterday, Young, Bishop and other Republicans made repeated reference to that testimony from April as grounds for taking action. But no tribal leaders have testified since the rule was finalized.

“Although this is a compromise, NCAI greatly appreciates the effort and commitment from the administration to get these regulations finalized and to improve the process,” NCAI President Brian Cladoosby said in a press release at the time. “NCAI has been pushing for years for all tribes seeking recognition to have a fair and equitable process. “

Even though Congress has always had the authority to recognize tribes, lawmakers are extremely reluctant to exercise their powers. 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.

Committee Notice:
Legislative Hearing on H.R. 3764 (October 28, 2015)

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)

Join the Conversation

Related Stories:
Top GOP lawmaker slams BIA's Washburn on eve of big hearing (10/28)
Assistant Secretary Washburn to testify on federal recognition bill (10/27)
House subcommittee takes up federal recognition bill at hearing (10/26)
Bill strips Bureau of Indian Affairs of federal recognition powers (10/22)
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)
Appropriations measure blocks BIA's federal recognition reforms (06/16)
No movement on reform of federal recognition process at BIA (05/04)
BIA faces fire over latest reforms to federal recognition process (4/23)
BIA submits federal recognition rule to White House for review (4/21)
House subcommittee to hold hearing on BIA recognition reform (4/20)
Lawmakers want BIA to delay new federal recognition reforms (03/27)
BIA expected to finalize changes to federal recognition process (3/24)