BIA project consumes recognition resources
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The Bureau of Indian Affairs has spent more than $100,000 on a federal recognition project involving just one tribe but officials on Tuesday insisted the system will speed up review of groups that have waited years to get an answer on their status.

In response to one of several lawsuits, recognition researchers and their staff developed a computer database for the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation of Connecticut. The BIA is under a court-imposed timeline to make a ruling on the tribe's petition and the system will help, officials told the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.

"It definitely will save time," testified Lee Fleming, the chief of the BIA's Branch of Acknowledgment and Research (BAR).

But highlighting concerns raised throughout yesterday's hearing, the project cost represents a significant chunk -- more than 10 percent -- of the BIA's meager federal recognition budget. About $42,000 has been spent so far to create the system and an additional $64,000 was paid to three research assistants on data entry, the committee was told.

"That is just in regard to the bare nuts and bolts," added Fleming, who noted "unknown costs" associated with making digital images of approximately 8,000 recognition documents.

The hefty resources involved raise questions of fairness because the project was driven by costly and time-consuming litigation, acknowledged an attorney who advises the recognition staff. "It certainly does affect the priorities," said Scott Keep, a Department of Interior solicitor.

And the situation will only get worse, he warned. "The trend has been to litigate all cases," he told the panel.

The BIA nonetheless hopes the pilot will pay off in the long run and enable sharing of information among interested parties and the public. In addition to the Schaghticoke petition, researchers want to use the database for other groups in the queue.

Fleming after the hearing said the project, dubbed the Federal Acknowledgment Resource System (FAIR), wasn't the idea of any one particular person. He added that the need for an electronic database grew out of a lawsuit filed by the Ramapough Tribe, which has asked the Supreme Court to review its status.

FAIR is based on Microsoft Access, a commercial software package. Fleming didn't immediately know the size of the Schaghticoke database but noted the Ramapough data consisted of seven CDROMs. One CD typically holds 650 MB of information.

Fleming envisioned a future where FAIR will use other off-the-shelf software to enable the BIA to respond to numerous public requests for recognition documents. He said the system has protections for sensitive data, such as genealogical information, and said the project's research assistants were cleared by routine security procedures.

According to Mike Smith, the director of the Office of Tribal Services, Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests have overwhelmed the recognition staff. He told the committee that about 84,000 pages have been recently processed.

"Never did I imagine I would become a glorified Kinko's operator," attested Smith.

Relevant Documents:
Written Witness Testimony (6/11)

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