BIA pushed to provide 'answers' on recognition
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An angry Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) on Wednesday pushed the Bureau of Indian Affairs to provide him with "answers" on the federal recognition process as he questioned a number of decisions made during the final days of the Clinton administration.

Citing media reports, McCain repeatedly demanded Deputy Commissioner Sharon Blackwell to clarify actions taken by former Assistant Secretary Kevin Gover and his top aide Michael Anderson. In their last days in office, the pair signed off on documents which extended final recognition to the Chinook Nation of Washington and preliminary recognition to the Duwamish Tribe of Washington and the Nipmuc Nation of Massachusetts

But even though Blackwell -- a non-political appointee whom Gover brought on board last summer -- has direct oversight of the researchers, anthropologists and genealogists who make federal acknowledgment decisions, she could not recall with complete certainty how the tribes came to be recognized nor how the staff participated in the process.

"Doesn't this sound a little unusual?" asked McCain of reports that Gover and Anderson rejected staff recommendations against recognizing the three tribes, inserting different conclusions about their authenticity.

"It may be unusual," responded Blackwell. But she explained that "the Assistant Secretary ultimately is responsible for making these determinations, for reviewing staff work."

McCain, however, was clearly unsatisfied with Blackwell's admitted lack of preparation in discussing the three decisions, two of which are on hold pending review by the new Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb. The Chinook decision, which Gover finalized on his last day in office, is supported by the new administration but McCain said he will be probing all three further.

"A lot of interesting things happened in the last days of the Clinton administration," said McCain. "We intend to get some more answers on this issue."

The heated exchange between McCain and Blackwell came during an oversight hearing the Senate Indian Affairs Committee held on the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) and gaming issues. In preparation, Blackwell had been briefed on recognition but staff members said later she had not expected such "specific" questions.

And although she has offered to provide more detailed information about the decisions, her evasiveness did little to convince McCain the agency has a handle on a process which he suggested has been influenced by the $10 billion, and growing, Indian gaming industry.

Blackwell attempted to recover from her stumble by elaborating on the matter to Senator Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), chairman of the committee. But McCain had already left the hearing by the time her staff had rather hurriedly pulled together statistics and analysis about the number of federal recognition petitions the BIA has received since IGRA was passed in 1988.

There has been an increase in letters of intent to petition for recognition since 1988, said Blackwell. However, she said the jump was not "appreciable" and noted that revisions made to the regulations in 1994 have resulted in more public awareness.

A letter of intent is only the first step in the recognition process. A group must submit an application before the BIA's Branch of Acknowledgment and Research can begin to evaluate and analyze a petition, which can take several years.

Both Inouye and Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.), committee vice-chairman, expressed concern about the length of time it can take for tribes to hear a final answer on their status. But Campbell, the sponsor of a bill to rid the BIA of its recognition duties, said he opposes tribes trying to make an "end-run" on the process by seeking recognition through legislation.

During his confirmation hearing, McCaleb said he opposes taking the process, flawed as it may be, away from his agency.

Relevant Links:
Senate Indian Affairs Committee -
Branch of Acknowledgment and Research -

Related Stories:
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Gover's 'activist' legacy escapes McCaleb (6/13)
BIA has small goal for big problem (5/22)
Federal recognition battles continue (5/10)
Recognition reforms might not have an effect (2/7)

Blasts from the Past - Indianz.Com Recognition Classics:
Recognition findings a departure (8/16)
Decisions put Gover in the middle (08/16)
Gover wants BIA out of nastiness (05/25)
Town: Gover a 'mockery' (5/25)