McCaleb delivers aggressive recognition plan
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In response to threats of Congressional intervention, the Bush administration is moving forward with an aggressive revamp of the federal recognition process, including promotions and raises for staff whose work has been questioned.

Nearly a year after he first promised it, Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb unveiled a strategic reform plan this week. In letters to members of Congress and the White House, he said the Bureau of Indian Affairs wants to make the process "more accessible" and understandable to all involved.

"We share the goal of improving this important federal function to better serve Indian tribes," he wrote on September 30.

The plan comes after years of criticism that predate McCaleb's arrival at the Department of Interior. Complaints about the fairness and timeliness of federal acknowledgment decisions resulted in a November 2001 General Accounting Office (GAO) report that made numerous recommendations the BIA accepted.

The key change is an increase in resources for the Branch and Acknowledgment and Research (BAR), the staff charged with researching recognition petitions. McCaleb will triple the staff from its current 11 to 33 employees.

Along with that is an elevation of BAR to a "division" within BIA, complete with pay raises for BAR Chief R. Lee Fleming and his researchers. Three new teams of anthropologists, genealogists and historians will be hired to complement a new support staff who will respond to requests for information by petitioning groups and interested parties.

The total cost of the reorganization is an estimated $3.18 million, triple the existing BAR budget. Spokesperson Nedra Darling said the new resources will help make the process more user-friendly.

"It is a very aggressive plan. It's pretty tight," she said yesterday. "There's ambition there but it's also doable. It's really making up for a lot of the past where there was no staffing or no money."

Key lawmakers have moved in the past two years to strip the BIA of its recognition duties. Bills to reform the existing process have picked up steam in recent months.

McCaleb's new plan counters Congressional unrest in a number of respects, including a goal to reduce the entire recognition backlog within three to four years. In comparison, Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.) wants to set up an independent commission to finish the BIA's job in 12 years.

The reform also pins itself on a new Internet web site for recognition information. Every single report, finding and decision will be available online by summer 2003, provided the BIA can get over its current connectivity problems.

McCaleb also said the BIA can't change the system alone. Congress will need to act to impose "sunset" provisions on petitioning tribes and ease privacy limitations on evidence the groups submit, according to the plan.

Since 1978, the BIA has recognized 16 tribes and turned down just as many. There are more than 200 groups awaiting an answer on their case. The vast majority, however, have not submitted complete documentation.

According to the plan, there are 15 groups whose record is almost complete, 14 who are awaiting an initial finding and 21 in the final stages.

Litigation has increased because the BAR staff can't keep up with the workload. A number of court cases have imposed time-lines on the BIA to make decisions.

Read the Report:
McCaleb Letter (9/30) | BIA Strategic Plan (9/12)

Other Reports:
Indian Issues: Improvements Needed in Tribal Recognition Process (GAO-02-49, November 2)

Related Stories:
BIA role in recognition decisions under review (6/13)
At BIA, recognition a 'glorified Kinkos' (6/12)
Recognition report due to Congress (6/11)
BIA recognition staff fails pressure test (5/31)
Getting there, McCaleb takes on recognition (3/15)
Bush budget cuts funds for new tribes (Tribal Law 03/20)
Inside the BIA, plenty of drama (3/4)
Ashcroft urged to charge BIA officials (3/1)
Recognition report offers little surprises (11/6)