Interior Department Disses U.S. House on Tribal Federal Recognition

WASHINGTON – What if Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, held a hearing on federal recognition of tribes and no one came? At least no one from the federal agency that handles tribal recognition issues? That’s what happened on June 27, when Young called a meeting of the Subcommittee on Indian and Alaska Native Affairs, titled, “Authorization, standards, and procedures for whether, how, and when Indian tribes should be newly recognized by the federal government,” and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and all staff underneath him declined to show up. The slight was made all the more stinging when two weeks later, on July 12, the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, chaired by Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, held a hearing on the same issue, and Interior sent an expert witness.

Questions come fast and furious: Are we seeing the era of political hardball clash with the usually bi-partisan efforts on Indian policy? Is Interior so desperately understaffed on Native policy issues that it couldn’t find anyone to send to Young’s meeting? Does Young have bad breath?

Regardless of the answers to any or all of those questions, Young is mad, and he believes politics are at play. “Unfortunately, it’s become clear to the Congressman that the Department of the Interior [DOI] is playing politics with tribal federal recognition—especially when you consider how many times DOI has stonewalled not only Rep. Young’s Subcommittee, but the House Natural Resources Committee as a whole,” said Luke Miller, a spokesman for Young.

“Congressman Young has always held the belief that Congress has the final say when it comes to making federal tribal policy,” Miller added. “It does seem as if DOI’s reluctance to work with our subcommittee is rooted in their belief that they—the executive branch—have primary authority over federal tribal policy.”

Miller added that past “DOI stonewalling” has led Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., who is the House Natural Resources Committee Chairman, to issue subpoenas to get Interior to offer up information on certain issues, including its role in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. (Hastings’ committee includes the Indian subcommittee.)

He said this situation impairs Young’s ability to work for tribes on recognition issues: “In the end, DOI’s reluctance to work with Rep. Young and others on the subcommittee hurts Native Americans, because the matters they are seeking to resolve are being held up by political games on the part of this administration.”

Interior officials say no insult was intended, that it was just a scheduling issue. “Indian Affairs is working closely with Chairman Young's staff to reschedule a workable date for the DOI witness to appear before the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Indian Affairs hearing on Federal Recognition,” said Nedra Darling, a spokeswoman for Interior and the BIA, in an e-mail. “[A]ppropriate Indian Affairs officials were unavailable to testify before the House Subcommittee on Indian Affairs due to previous commitments. Indian Affairs looks forward to discussing the Federal Acknowledgement process with Chairman Young and the House Subcommittee on Indian Affairs.”

That explanation does not satisfy Young and those who have noted the close dates of the SCIA and House subcommittee hearings on the same issue. The question, for them, remains: Why was someone available to testify before the Democratic-led SCIA just two weeks after the Republican-led Indian subcommittee held a hearing on the same issue?

Whether politics was an issue or not, many recent defections and staffing problems at the agency support the notion that the agency is understaffed – and perhaps overwhelmed – on Indian policy matters. There have been some recent high-profile exits: Larry Echo Hawk, former Assistant Secretary on Indian Affairs, left for a leadership position with the Mormon Church in April; his chief of staff Paul Tsosie followed him to Utah; Jodi Gillette, former Deputy Assistant Secretary to the Assistant Secretary on Indian Affairs for Policy and Economic Development, recently moved to the White House to become a senior advisor on Indian affairs. Before he left, Echo Hawk appointed former eastern Oklahoma regional BIA office director Jeanette Hanna as special assistant on Indian issues—a controversial appointment, since Hanna had been removed from her leadership post in Oklahoma because of an “ongoing personnel matter,” according to reporting by The Tulsa World and The Washington Post.

The Obama administration has not nominated a permanent replacement for Echo Hawk, and some knowledgeable sources say that few qualified Indians are willing to accept federal Indian positions given the lack of prestige and pay, and the uncertainty on whether President Barack Obama will be elected to a second term. Meanwhile, Del Laverdure, the current acting Assistant Secretary on Indian Affairs, is being hammered by Congress over the DOI’s failure to release a tribal “Labor Force Report” this year, in violation of federal law. Legal issues aside, Laverdure’s ability to negotiate the political landmines involved here is also being tested.

The skeleton-crew problems do not portend well for tribes on federal recognition or any issues, according to observers. “I assume that the problem the Department had in June was related to a lack of staff,” said Eric Eberhard, an Indian law professor at Seattle University who previously worked for SCIA in the 1990s. “If that is correct, it is imperative that the Department take prompt action to get fully staffed so that requests for testimony on issues of this magnitude can be handled promptly and thoroughly. The Department's responsibility to all of Indian country in the area of federal recognition deserves full funding and staffing. The Congress can and should provide the necessary funding and oversight to make sure the Department is carrying out this duty in a fair, efficient and balanced way. Congress can't do that if they don't have the cooperation and information from the Department.”

Larry Rosenthal, a partner at Ietan Consulting, a tribal lobbying firm, accepts Interior’s explanation, that the slight wasn’t politically motivated. “I don't think this administration has been shy about testifying on both sides of the Hill,” the former Democratic congressional staffer said. “From what I have seen, they have shown up to deliver good news and to take their lumps.” Indeed, during the July 12 SCIA hearing on federal tribal recognition, Interior received admonishment from pro-Indian country legislators when policy advisor Bryan Newland was forced to agree that the Obama administration has not followed through on a November 2009 promise to propose new federal recognition regulations within a year. Newland said he couldn’t promise that such regulations would even be ready by the end of the current session of Congress. The Democratic lawmakers in charge did not take kindly to that admission.

“But Don Young is such a long-time champion in Indian country, that I would see no reason for them not to testify before his subcommittee,” Rosenthal added. “This is particularly true when talking about a thorny issue like federal recognition, where both sides need to work together to fashion a solution. I don't see any political upside to dodging Don Young, so my instincts tell me something else was at play.”

Other possible explanations for the slight are bad blood between Interior administrators and Young, who has suggested the need for strong reforms at BIA under both Republican and Democratic administrations; and the reality that all Executive Branches, regardless of political stripe, sometimes tend to respond more quickly to Senate requests over ones from the House—even though the branches are supposed to be equal in weight.

No matter what the reason, the consensus is that nothing good for tribes can possibly come from this tension. “It’s a most unfortunate development for tribes,” said Philip Baker-Shenk, a partner with Holland & Knight’s Indian Law Practice, who previously worked for the Senate. “When mistakes like these happen—for whatever reason—they need to be repaired, because both the Department and the committee need to find ways to work together on delicate issues like federal recognition.”

At least one possible source of conflict here has been eliminated: Young's office confirmed to Indian Country Today Media Network that he does not have bad breath. “The congressman practices good dental hygiene by regularly brushing his teeth,” Miller said.