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Federal Indian certification regulations raise concerns

WASHINGTON - Recently, the BIA published proposed regulations on documentation requirements and standards for receiving a "Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood" or CDIB.

The announcement sparked new attention and debate throughout Indian country on a federal designation long misunderstood by many.

A certificate has for years been an official way for some to certify that they possess Indian blood, without the need to be listed as a tribal member, on tribal rolls. A certificate does not establish membership within any Indian tribe, but is issued to an individual so they may prove eligibility for programs and services based upon their status as American Indians or Alaska Natives.

While the federal government is charged with making determinations for purposes of issuing the certificates, American Indian tribes make their own determinations of blood degree for membership.

For years, tribal leaders expressed concern with the certificates and the problems they may pose for tribal governments, from the impact on tribal enrollment to the process used to compute blood quantum. Some argue the federal government should not be in the business of determining who is Indian at all.

With the release of proposed new regulations, tribal leaders are again expressing discomfort with the issue.

"The BIA should really look at how these regulations will impact tribal governments," said W. Ron Allen, chairman of the Jamestown S'kallam Tribe.

"When issuing a CDIB the federal government is in control of determining who is Indian. Tribal members and the services they receive are affected by these determinations."

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Existing federal laws and regulations require some form of proof of Indian blood to qualify for certain programs or services. These programs and services are available to enrolled members of federally recognized Indian tribes as well as those who can prove they are "officially" Indian. The certificates serve as one of the most common forms of proof accepted by the government.

Degree of Indian blood usually was computed from lineal ancestors enrolled with a federally recognized Indian tribe. However, there have been times when the federal government, through laws such as the Allotment Act, the Indian Reorganization Act and others, extended its policies beyond tribes currently recognized by the federal government.

Indian people from tribes terminated by the government or individuals who are members or descendants of members of state-recognized tribes may be eligible for programs and services. It is this practice of accepting non-federally recognized tribes which some claim is threatened by the new regulations.

The proposed rule requires applicants to show a relationship to an enrolled member of a federally recognized Indian tribe, through father or mother. This only includes tribes, bands, nations, pueblos, villages, or communities which appear on "the list of recognized tribes published in the Federal Register by the Secretary of the Interior."

This excludes members or descendants of members of terminated tribes or state-recognized tribes, sparking fear from areas in Indian country, like California, where tribes were terminated or state-recognized tribes are common.

"A number of tribes in California rely on the federal government's calculation of Indian blood in determining eligibility for tribal membership," said Patricia Dixon, chairwoman of the board of California Indian Legal Services, in a statement to the BIA. "In some cases, the blood-degree requirement may not specify whether the blood must be that of a federally recognized tribe or non-federally recognized tribe. If the proposed rule is adopted, the bureau's recalculation of Indian blood quantum could raise questions about eligibility for tribal membership."

Tribal leaders, like Dixon, believe the service Indian populations receive in places such as California would naturally be negatively impacted by the new regulations because of the high level of recognized and non-recognized tribes and communities. Their fear is that the existence of large populations of Indian people would be ignored, resulting in a major drop in program and service eligibility for many throughout Indian country.

"It appears the Bureau intends to use this rule as a means of limiting access to federal Indian programs and services to only those Indians who possess the blood of federally recognized tribes," Dixon wrote. "The adoption of such a rule could result in many California Indians being treated as non-Indians for federal purposes and is an indirect way of restricting eligibility for federal programs and services."

Deadline for comments on the proposed rule was in July. There were consultation meetings by the BIA in Alaska, South Dakota and New Mexico but none in California or the Eastern Region.