By Venita Jenkins -- The Fayetteville Observer, N.C.
WASHINGTON (MCT) - Lumbee Tribal Chairman Jimmy Goins on Sept. 19 tried to convince a congressional committee that the administrative path to federal recognition is broken and that legislation is the only way his tribe will obtain that status.
The tribe has a long, unhappy history with the BIA, which oversees the recognition process, Goins said. He said the bureau has an institutional bias against non-recognized tribes and should not be in charge of processing the petitions of groups seeking federal status.
''The mission of the BIA is to serve and protect the interest of federally recognized tribes,'' he said. ''This being so, it is not fair to either the BIA or non-federally recognized tribes to expect the BIA to also pass on the status of other Indian groups.''
Goins made his comments to the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. He suggested that an independent commission determine whether tribes receive recognition.
Goins was one of four American Indian leaders who testified before the committee about problems in the recognition process. Federal status could mean millions of dollars in federal aid for housing, education, health care and economic development.
Tribal leaders described the process as cumbersome and expensive.
There is a 15-year backlog in the bureau for processing petitions for federal recognition. More than 300 tribes have sent letters of intent or petitions for the status. Two of the tribal leaders who addressed the committee said their tribes have been waiting more than 30 years.
The process usually takes 25 months.
North Dakota Democratic Sen. Byron Dorgan, the committee chairman, said the backlog is a strong indicator that the process needs to be revised. For tribes to wait nearly 30 years is not fair and is not acceptable, he said.
''Someone is bleeding this process dry, and the process is not working for a lot of folks who deserve federal recognition,'' Dorgan said.
The recognition process has evolved into a lengthy and costly process that requires substantial research and documentation, he said.
Since the bureau's inception in 1978, only 16 tribes have been recognized through the administrative process. Twenty-eight tribes have received the status through Congress, Dorgan said.
Goins said the administrative process does not help the Lumbees.
The tribe hasn't pursued that route since the late 1980s because the Lumbee Act of 1956 prohibits it from doing so, he said.
Instead, the tribe has gone through Congress.
In June, the House passed a bill that would recognize the tribe. The bill is pending in the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, where it has to be voted out of committee and forwarded to the full Senate.
Those who say the tribe needs to go through the administrative process to protect the integrity of the system are really arguing against Lumbee recognition, Goins said.
There are about 57,000 Lumbees, most of whom live in Robeson and surrounding counties. The tribe is the largest east of the Mississippi not federally recognized.
Leaders from the other tribes said the financial burden, changes in requirements and little to no help from the bureau have made the recognition process difficult.
''We have been trapped in the BIA's bureaucracy for over 30 years, and we have nothing but expense and frustration to show for it,'' said Ann Tucker, chairman of the Muscogee Nation of Florida.
Federal officials are considering several changes to expedite the recognition process, including hiring additional staff, said R. Lee Flemming, director of the Office of Federal Acknowledgment with the bureau.
Dorgan requested a report in six to eight months to see whether the changes improve the process.
Goins said later he hopes the Sept. 19 testimony illustrated the problems that tribes are going through.
''I don't think there is any doubt in anyone's mind that the process is broken,'' he said. ''The question is, how are they going to redo the whole process?''
Goins said he's uncertain about what will happen next with the Lumbee bill. Tribal leaders are waiting for direction from Dorgan, he said.
Copyright (c) 2007, The Fayetteville Observer, N.C. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.