Congress waits on recognition reform plan
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TUESDAY, JUNE 11, 2002

The Bureau of Indian Affairs, facing criticism from tribes, state governments and the media, goes before Congress today to report on federal recognition, one of its most controversial duties.

But there are few material improvements the BIA will be able to provide to the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. Several decisions have been delayed, courts continue to meddle in the process and critics find reason to blame the affair on political and financial interests.

For those reasons, and many others, Congress is considering revoking Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb's powers to decide who is and who isn't an Indian. Legislation to establish an independent recognition commission picked up steam when the Clinton administration endorsed the concept two years ago.

McCaleb opposes such a move. He has voiced confidence in being able to reform the system and promised six months ago to deliver a "strategic" plan to Congress.

With the deadline now here, McCaleb is expected to make good on his pledge, setbacks or not. One was Wayne Smith, the BIA's second-in-command who was fired late last month amid charges of influence-peddling involving groups seeking recognition and, in some cases, the casino dollars that go along with is.

What is in store is an pre-emptive strike against Congressional action. McCaleb is proposing several changes that would mirror provisions in the recognition bill Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.), vice-chairman of the Indian committee, has introduced.

Recommendations would still be made by a group of researchers known collectively as the Branch of Acknowledgment and Research (BAR). This largely non-Indian group of historians, genealogists and anthropologists is responsible for evaluating the evidence submitted by hopefuls.

But modifications would respond to criticism that the current process doesn't offer specific and reliable guidance. Standards regarding the type of evidence required will be clarified in hopes of aiding petitioning groups and interested parties.

One key rubric involves "continuous" existence as an Indian tribe, which for some petitioners requires the submission of documents dating as far back as the 1600s. Under the BIA proposal, the criterion would stay the same but a cut-off date would be applied to all groups and therefore limit the reams of records.

Other changes being considered are more clerical in nature. From providing more information via the Internet to hiring more staff, the goal is to be more responsive to an issue which has traditionally been a low priority within the bureau.

The proposed fiscal year 2003 funding for federal recognition is about $900,000 for the 12 or so members of the recognition staff. Rep. Rob Simmons (R-Conn.) introduced a bill to double the BAR's funding.

McCaleb will not testify at today's hearing. Mike Smith, the director of the Office of Tribal Services, which oversees BAR, will appear.

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