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USET leader criticizes GOP lawmakers for handling of Indian issues

Indianz.Com SoundCloud: House Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs Legislative Hearing on Tribal Recognition Act (Part II)

Republicans and Democrats clashed once again as the House Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs took up a controversial federal recognition bill on Tuesday.

The drama started early as Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), the chairman of the subcommittee, lashed out against his Democratic counterpart for an opening statement that was critical of H.R.3764, the Tribal Recognition Act. The bill strips the Bureau of Indian Affairs of its ability to recognize tribes and requires Congress to make a decision on every single petition.

"I see little attempt on the other side of the aisle to work together and listen, instead of opinionizing," Young told Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-California), the top Democrat on the panel. "All the time -- you do that."

"We're here to solve a problem," Young added. "You may not agree, but this is what this hearing is about, not to sit here and make a partisan issue out of it."

YouTube: Legislative Hearing on Tribal Recognition Act (Part II)

By placing federal recognition decisions in the hands of Congress, Ruiz argued that the bill makes an already complex process even more political by subjecting it to the whims of whatever party is in control at the time. He attempted to respond to Young's criticism but the chairman shut off the microphone and their back-and-forth, which went on for about 10 seconds, wasn't audible.

"Be nice," Young -- whose reputation for outbursts and questionable comments is well known on Capitol Hill -- later told Ruiz at the conclusion of the 90-minute hearing.

The proceeding itself was the second since H.R.3764 was introduced in October. The first one ended with a pledge by Republican leaders to move forward despite strong opposition from the Obama administration. Assistant Secretary Kevin Washburn, the head of the BIA, said petitioning groups might never get an answer from Congress, whose members remain unable to carry out basic functions like approving a budget for the federal government.

This time, the subcommittee gathered a panel who were more favorable. Only one -- Brian Patterson, the president of the United South and Eastern Tribes -- outright testified against the measure. He was intentionally placed last on the witness list.

United South and Eastern Tribes President Brian Patterson, right, with Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation Chairman Rodney Butler, left, and Narragansett Tribe Ambassador and Council Member Randy Noka. Photo from USET

"Too much is at stake for the federal recognition process to be politicized," Patterson told lawmakers.

Patterson further criticized the subcommittee for its handling of Indian issues since the start of the 114th Congress. He singled out a hearing in April during which Republicans -- aided by their staffs -- suggested that tribes that already went through the federal recognition process at the BIA are not illegitimate. Several of USET's members gained federal status by following the agency's Part 83 regulations.

"The suggestion that they're 'creating' something suggests something illegal is going on and whoever came up with that verbiage, in my opinion, should firmly be held accountable," Patterson said, referring to the title of that hearing as well as the hearing memo.

Yet even the witnesses who were more favorable to the bill didn't offer much clarity at the hearing. Utah Attorney Sean D. Reyes was an odd choice to appear because no tribe from Utah has ever gone through the process and no groups from Utah are petitioning for status either. Although he mentioned his membership in national attorneys general groups, he admitted he wasn't testifying on anyone's behalf.

Morongo Band Chairman Robert Martin. Photo from City of Beamount, California / Facebook

"I'm not [here] in a representative capacity," Reyes said.

The Ute Tribe of Utah, on the other hand, sent a letter of opposition to Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee and the sponsor of the bill.

Nicholas H. Mullane II, a leader from a town on Connecticut who was a vocal critic of the BIA for its handling of petitions from his state, said he supported efforts to reform the recognition process. But his testimony seemed to undercut the premise of Bishop's legislation.

"I don't think the old system was broken," Mullane said. "It wasn't administered well."

Mullane instead called for more funding and staff for the BIA. He also said the agency's decisions should be subject to administrative appeals by an independent body, such as the Interior Board of Indian Appeals.

Assistant Secretary Kevin Washburn. Photo by Department of the Interior

As for Robert Martin, the chairman of the Morongo Band of Mission Indians from California, he fully embraced Bishop's bill. He criticized the BIA's Part 83 federal recognition reforms that were finalized in June and said they would lead to federal status for groups that might not deserve it.

"We grasp the controversial nature of this proposal but when our council discussed the issue at length we ultimately concluded that such a change is necessary to address lack of consistency on issues such as reaffirmation and re-petitioning," Martin testified.

In addition to finalizing the reforms, the BIA adopted a policy that bars groups from seeking federal status by any other means besides the Part 83 process. The new rule itself also does not allow groups that were denied status to reapply.

However, Martin and Republicans on the subcommittee have insisted that the BIA "re-invited" a group from California to restart the process. The agency's website, though, shows that the Juaneno Band of Mission Indians, Acjachemen Nation is following up on the denial of its petition, a due process step that has been available in the past.

The Morongo Band so far is the only tribe that has come out in support of H.R.3764. Besides USET and the Ute Tribe, the leader of the Cherokee Nation -- the largest tribe in the U.S. -- is opposing the bill due to concerns about politicizing the recognition process.

“The Cherokee name continues to be a popular front for groups seeking federal recognition,” Chief Bill John Baker said in in a press release disseminated by Democrats on the House Natural Resources Committee. “In fact, there have been more than 40 such groups who have submitted applications for federal acknowledgment, making fraudulent claims against our historical right. As such, the Cherokee Nation opposes any effort which would make it easier for these non-Indian groups to usurp our sovereignty, unique history, and culture. Our core concern is that H.R. 3764 would afford additional opportunities for these fraudulent groups to seek federal recognition.”

H.R.3764 doesn't represent the only time that lawmakers have sought to change the federal recognition process. Members of both parties have been introducing reform measures since the late 1990s and the 2000s but none ever gained traction.

Committee Notice:
Legislative Hearing on Tribal Recognition Act (Part II) (December 8, 2015)

Prior Committee Hearing 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)

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