Manataka™ American Indian Council
Feds pledge overhaul of tribal recognition system
BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) -- With some American Indian groups waiting decades for formal recognition from the U.S. government, federal officials Wednesday pledged to overhaul the cumbersome process but cautioned the changes could take two years to go into effect.
Federal recognition renders tribes eligible for economic assistance, land, housing grants and other government benefits.
Decisions on whether tribes qualify are supposed to be made by the Department of Interior within 25 months. Yet some Indians have seen their petitions languish within the agency’s Bureau of Indian Affairs for 30 years or more without an answer.
"We have survived Indian removal, genocide, the Civil War, the burning of our courthouse, Jim Crow laws and their KKK enforcers," said Ann Tucker, chair of the Muscogee Nation of Florida. "We have waited long enough for a broken process to determine our fate."
Members of the Muscogee began their drive for recognition in 1978 and are now among 15 Indian groups waiting for a final determination. Those include five in California, three in Louisiana and others in Michigan, New York, Georgia, North Carolina, Wisconsin and New Mexico.
Another 80 Indian groups remain mired in the early stages of a federal process that can cost millions of dollars to navigate -- far more than some can afford.
During a U.S. Senate oversight hearing Wednesday, the man who oversees the recognition processagreed new rules need to be put in place to fix a process several senators called "broken."
"There is no certainty in that process. That needs to happen," said George Skibine, the Interior Department’s acting deputy assistant secretary for Indian affairs.
Skibine said his agency would begin drafting new regulations setting a definitive timeline for petitions to be considered. He said those new rules could take a year to develop and then another year to be adopted.
Wednesday’s hearing also highlighted the experiences of Montana’s Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa, which filed its recognition petition in 1978. That was the year the current process was established by Congress.
It took 31 years for the tribe to get a negative decision after being told a decade ago that approval was likely.
The tribe was told in October it failed meet three of government’s seven criteria. Montana’s Congressional delegation has vowed to overturn that decision.
Sen. Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat, said the government accepts that 90 percent of the Little Shell are Chippewa Indian descendants. To then turn around and deny them tribal status "puts them out there in limbo," he said.
A bill sponsored by U.S. Rep. Eni Faleomavaega, a Democrat from American Samoa, would streamline the process. The measure would pare down the number of criteria to just two and transfer authority over recognition from the Interior Department to a commission appointed by the president.
Little Shell Chairman John Sinclair said the $2 million spent on his tribe’s recognition effort "show that the process is completely run amok."
More than 70,000 pages of documents were generated for the BIA’s eventual decision, which Sinclair said amounts to a stack of paperwork 35 feet high.
He said the tribe was penalized by the Bureau of Indian Affairs in part because of its nomadic history. Without any land to call their own, members of the tribe wandered the Northern Plains for decades before settling in Montana and adjacent states and provinces early last century.
In the process, they intermarried with European settlers and scattered to multiple towns and rural communities.
"The Little Shell must look like every other tribe or they won’t be recognized," Sinclair said. "The fault is in the regulatory process, not with the Little Shell tribe."
The Little Shell’s approximately 4,300 members were recognized by the state of Montana in 2000. They have no reservation.
They trace their drive for recognition to the 1860s, when the related Pembina Band of Chippewa Indians signed a treaty with the U.S. government later ratified by the Senate.
In 1892, when the government created a commission to negotiate for a land cessation for some Chippewa, Chief Little Shell refused to accept the terms. His people were later carved out of the agreement.
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