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McCaleb floats reform plan for beleaguered recognition

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WASHINGTON ? Responding to vehement external attacks and internal criticism, the BIA sent a plan to Congress on Oct. 2 for changing the federal process for recognizing Indian tribes. It primarily would increase funding and staff positions at the much-maligned Branch of Acknowledgement and Research (BAR), the body currently swamped by controversies over its huge backlog of tribal recognition petitions.

Neal McCaleb, Interior's assistant secretary for Indian affairs, said the plan would make the recognition process more consistent by providing clearer regulatory guidelines than now exist. It would also triple the resources now available to the BAR.

McCaleb proposed elevating the Branch to a division of the BIA, tripling its staff from 11 to 33 and raising its budget to $3.18 million. The increased bureaucratic status would entail pay raises for BAR head R. Lee Fleming and his professional staff. The proposal signals a marked turn-around in relations between the BAR professionals and the politically appointed leaders of the BIA, which under McCaleb's two immediate predecessors had deteriorated to the point of open hostility.

The new resources would provide three new teams of anthropologists, genealogists and historians to speed up the processing of a three-decade backlog of petitions. The delay has been so severe that some applicants in the last two years have successfully obtained federal court orders setting timetables for a decision.

The plan also deals with one cause of recent delays, prolonged court challenges and Freedom of Information Act requests from local and state politicians hostile to new recognitions. Outside contractors would be hired to handle the FOIA volume, which at one point was consuming more than one estimated man-work-year from the 11-person staff. Contractors would also take on tasks such as data entry and preparation of litigation records.

Information would be more available to petitioners and the public through the use of CD-ROMs and the Internet, McCaleb said. Opponents of recognition decisions in Connecticut have charged that the BIA delayed providing them with information about petitions.

Spokesperson Nedra Darling said, "It is a very aggressive plan. It's pretty tight. There's ambition there but it's also doable. It's really making up for a lot of the past where there was no staffing or no money."

Connecticut politicians, who have long been among the most vocal opponents of tribal recognition, have stepped up their attacks since the Bush Administration affirmed federal recognition of a third tribe in the state, the Historic Eastern Pequots, in June. The decision combined the petitions of the Eastern Pequots and the Paucatuck Eastern Pequots, two tribes that share the 227-acre Lantern Hill reservation in North Stonington, established by the colonial government of Connecticut in 1683. Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal and the three towns neighboring the site recently filed an appeal of the recognition, charging among other points that the BIA did not have authority to combine the two petitions.

Another tribal petition case is coming to a head with the expiration of the public comment period Oct. 1 on recognition of the Massachusetts-based Nipmuc Indians. Two factions of the historic tribe are contending. The Sutton, Mass.-based Hassanamisco Band of Nipmucs filed its intent to petition in the early 1980s, while the Webster, Mass.-bassed Chaubunagungamaug Band split off from the Nipmuc Nation in 1996 and filed its own petition. In the last hours of the Clinton Administration, acting BIA head Michael Anderson approved recognition of the Sutton-based nation but turned down the Webster group. McCaleb later denied both petitions.

Although the bulk of the Nipmuc population and ancestral land lies in Massachusetts, Blumenthal and an association of Northeast Connecticut towns are leading opposition to recognition, fearing another casino in that rural region. Guy Conrad, a spokesman for the Webster-based group, noted that a number of Massachusetts politicians, including U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy, supported Nipmuc recognition.

Both tribal factions also submitted thousands of pages Oct. 1 addressing the seven BAR criteria for recognition.

There are 562 tribes with federal recognition, a critical first step to opening an Indian casino. Hundreds more have expressed interest in seeking recognition, but most do not follow up. The BAR is considering 13 active applications. Another eight are complete and ready for consideration. Officials have said those cases will take years to decide.

Southeastern Connecticut is already home to two successful Indian casinos, the Mashantucket Pequots' Foxwoods and the Mohegan Sun, and local officials have said their emergency services and roads are already overwhelmed.

Senators Christopher Dodd and Joseph Lieberman, both D-Conn., and Rep. Rob Simmons, R-Conn., all proposed changes to the recognition process, but the BIA has argued that such legislation is unnecessary because its own reforms are underway. A moratorium on recognition proposed by Dodd as a rider to the

Interior Appropriations Bill went down in a crushing defeat in an 80 to 15 Senate vote Sept. 23.

McCaleb's plan developed after the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, issued a critical report on the recognition process in November 2001. The proposed reform was submitted to the head of GAO, the White House Office of Management and Budget and four congressional committees including Senate Governmental Affairs, which Lieberman chairs.