OAKLAND, Calif. - The BIA has proposed new rules with standardized guidelines for establishing a Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood (CDIB) that would only recognize American Indians of federally recognized tribes.
The proposed guidelines leave many California American Indians fearful they will be declared ineligible for BIA programs and services.
The BIA says the proposed rule, entered into the Federal Register, seeks to standardize eligibility for Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood nationally. So far the BIA has not had a national standard and the bureau says it is only doing so to make the process more clear.
Critics, such as California Indian Legal Services, say the proposed new rule could strongly affect California Indians who have had federal recognition taken away. Legal Services sources say that so far the BIA has provided programs and services to all individuals of at least one-quarter American Indian blood regardless of federal recognition but that could change.
"The problem is that this is a shift in Indian self-determination," says Steve Quesenberry, director of litigation for California Indian legal services. "We see this new recognition process as incompatible with congressional acts."
He noted the Snyder Act and the Indian Reorganization Act, among others, allow tribes to be the sole decision-makers as to who has American Indian blood and who does not.
California Indian tribal entities were dissolved by Congress in the 1950s and have since struggled to regain recognition. Legal Services representatives say some tribes are not recognized because congress refused to ratify seven treaties signed by California tribes in the 19th century, thus making the signers of those treaties ineligible for federal recognition.
While many tribes have been re-recognized, many have not. Quesenberry believes the unrecognized tribal members, along with those who are mixed, are the ones who would be most vulnerable under the new rules.
Both the BIA and California Indian Legal Services say the proposed rule will not affect mixed-blood members already enrolled in federally recognized tribes. Legal Services says that the biggest concern is that the proposed rule will be the impetus for individual California tribes to disenroll mixed-blood members at odds with their current tribal governments or other tribal families.
The BIA conducted a series of meetings around the country to take comments from individual tribes - in Anchorage, Alaska, Albuquerque, N.M., and Reno, Nev. California tribes, who they feel would be most greatly effected by the rule, were largely ignored in this process as they had to push to get the meeting in Reno added to the list, Legal Services said.
California Indian Legal Services says it is pushing to get the comment period extended on the proposed rule because the time given by the BIA is inadequate. Quesenberry says tribes had only five days to read and comment on the 31-page rule.
Deirdre Daly, who works in the Escondido office for California Indian Legal Services, says she attended the June 30 meeting in Reno and there was quite a bit of concern from tribal members. California Indian Legal Services then wrote its own comment letter saying the organization believed the services most likely to be taken away are health education, and the administration of Indian property, Daly said.
Dorson Zuni of the BIA Pacific Region Office says the whole matter has been overblown. He says the bureau's intentions have been misunderstood. Tribes still have the right to determine who is a member and the entire matter is just a way for the BIA to have a set standard of national rules throughout their 12 regional offices.
"We're not trying to diminish anyone's Indian blood," Zuni says. "It's just that our 12 regional offices have done things differently and we thought it was something that needed to be addressed."
Asked if this rule would affect unrecognized tribal members or mixed bloods, Zuni answered with a very succinct, "No."
Zuni, one of seven authors of the proposed rule, says that it was part of a two-year process to standardize the Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood and was not meant to be a Draconian measure to take away any programs and services for California Indians.
He insists the bureau has nothing to do with how tribes determine membership. Zuni cites the United States Supreme Court case Santa Clara vs. Martinez as a safeguard for tribes to determine their own membership.
Barbara Beller, who works at the California Rural Indian Health Board and has attended the BIA meetings, says standardization in itself is the problem. She feels each region has specific problems and issues to address and what may work for one area is not necessarily the best for another.
"In California we have special language that has allowed members of non-recognized tribes to receive our services since many California tribes are not recognized. We're worried that status could change."
Beller says it was a struggle to get the meeting in Reno and has pushed the BIA to hold another meeting for California tribes. She points out that the people most affected by the proposed rule are some of the poorest tribes which have the most trouble getting money for travel.
For now, Beller said she is hopeful the deadline for comment on the proposed rule change will be extended and that there will be another meeting, in the Golden State.