Recognition reforms might not have an effect
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FEBRUARY 7, 2001

In the ongoing debate over who is and who isn't an Indian tribe, tribal leaders in Connecticut have labeled the efforts against their struggle for federal recognition a war not just on their people but all of Indian Country.

Meanwhile, Connecticut officials like Attorney General Richard Blumenthal and the leaders of three towns who have filed a lawsuit challenging the pending recognition of two Pequot tribes in the state say they only want tribes and affected communities to be treated fairly amidst growing concern over gaming and trust land issues.

Caught in the middle are the dozen or so researchers, genealogists, and social anthropologists at the Bureau of Indian Affairs whose main task -- helping decide who is worthy of federal recognition --- is the target of a number of legislative reforms. But whether its stripping the staff of the Branch of Acknowledgment and Research (BAR) of their duties altogether or making changes in how they do their job, the proposals might not fix a heavily criticized system Senator Chris Dodd (D-Conn) earlier this week called "broken."

Dodd has promised to introduce legislation aimed at improving the "fairness, efficiency and accuracy" of the process. Among other tasks, he wants the BIA to notify state officials when groups in the state petition for recognition, accept evidence and testimony from interested parties about petitioning tribes, and issue a written finding stating how tribes have satisfied all seven mandatory recognition criteria.

To the hundreds of tribes familiar with the process, though, Dodd's proposals might seem just a bit redundant. To Republican lawmakers like New Mexico Senator Pete Domenici who have been critical of the previous administration's "over-regulation," they might raise the question of usefulness. And to the BAR staff, they are already standard practice.

"These are things we already do," said BIA spokesperson Nedra Darling. "Its already in the process."

Members of Dodd's staff admitted some of his reforms are covered by existing BIA regulations. However, they said its not unusual to codify existing regulations into law and characterized the proposals as merely strengthening existing procedure, which would seem to be a far cry from Dodd's own description of them as "progress."

Dodd's proposals also don't address directly a key issue in the debate over the preliminary decisions to recognize the Eastern Pequot and Paucatuck Eastern Pequot Tribes: the role of the Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs in the process. Critics of the departed Kevin Gover say his positive findings on the tribes were made at the expense of the recommendations of BAR staff.

But that's just part of the job, according to federal regulations. And despite concerns raised by others, the two members of the BAR staff most responsible for research on the tribes readily and willingly defended Gover's role at a public meeting on the tribes last August.

Dodd hasn't said when he will introduce his legislation. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo), Chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, has legislation pending in the Senate which would set up an independent commission whose sole task would be to take over the duties of the BAR and resolve all outstanding federal recognition petitions within 12 years.

Get the BIA lawsuit:
Blumenthal et. al v. US DOI et. al (Conn Attorney General January 2001)

Get Gover's Pequot Decisions:
Summary under the Criteria and Evidence for a Proposed Finding for Federal Acknowledgment - Eastern Pequot Preliminary Recognition (BIA March 2000)
Summary under the Criteria and Evidence for a Proposed Finding for Federal Acknowledgment - Eastern Pequot Preliminary Recognition (BIA March 2000)

Relevant Links:
Sen. Chris Dodd -

Related Stories:
Dodd calls for recognition reform (Tribal Law 2/6)
Pequot Sachem: Stop the War (The Talking Circle 2/6)
Tribe doesn't support moratorium (Tribal Law 2/6)