The House Resources Committee will hold a hearing this Thursday on a bill that seeks to speed up the federal recognition process for tribal groups that have been waiting decades for an answer.
Making good on one of his legislative promises, Rep. Richard Pombo (R-California), chairman of the committee, introduced H.R.512 last Wednesday. He said he is concerned about the number of tribes whose petitions at the Bureau of Indian Affairs haven’t received action since he held a hearing on the subject a year ago.
“Some of these groups have seen generations come and go with very little progress,” Pombo said in a statement. I know they have waited far too long, and I am committed to an aggressive action plan this Congress to alleviate this problem.”
The bill is directed at a handful of tribes that filed for recognition prior to October 17, 1988, the date of the passage of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. The petitions for these tribes have been fully documented and are on the BIA’s “ready” list for consideration.
But due to staff limitations, funding constraints and litigation on other cases, the agency has not made progress on any of them. “That in my mind is beyond any bureaucratic mess-up,” said Pombo at a hearing last April.
At the hearing, leaders of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe of Massachusetts and the Shinnecock Nation of New York told of repeated delays in their cases. Both tribes filed for recognition in the late 1970s. About 8 others are in the same boat.
“We certainly never expected it would take more than 30 years,” said Glenn Marshall, chairman of the tribe.
If passed, H.R.512 would require the BIA to issue a a proposed finding on each of the eligible tribes within six months and a final determination within one year. If no action is taken, the tribe can take the BIA to court to seek a ruling on its federal status.
Among others, the Wampanoags and the Shinnecocks are already in court over the BIA’s lengthy delays. The Wampanoags suffered a setback when an appeals court refused to force the BIA to meet a timeline while the Shinnecocks are in the initial stages of their lawsuit.
Federal recognition has become a hot-button issue due to the explosion of the Indian gaming industry. Critics say tribes want recognition only to open a casino but the groups that would benefit under Pombo’s bill sought federal status long before gaming became a reality on reservations.
BIA officials say they have made progress in light of criticism from Congress and the public. In the past, agency staff evaluated an average of 1.3 petitions per year but is now up to an average of nearly 5 per year.
Still, the BIA has only made decisions on 33 tribes since 1978. With more than 200 on the list, it would take the agency decades to rule on every single petition.
Several members of Congress have tried to reform the system to no avail. Proposals to take the process away from the BIA have been resisted by the Interior Department while others more favorable to tribes are attacked by critics.
Pombo advanced a nearly identical bill last year. But after passing the House Resources Committee, it never got a vote on the House floor. The Senate didn’t take up the measure either.
Implementing the bill would require $12 million over three years, according to the Congressional Budget Office. The money would be used to hire more staff.
Get the Bill:
Related House Report:
Federal Recognition Database (July 2004)