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Senate committee passes recognition measure

WASHINGTON - The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs recently marked-up a bill which would replace the process used by the federal government to recognize Indian tribes.

The bill, S. 611, the Indian Federal Recognition Administrative Procedures Act, would not only replace existing criteria, but would establish an independent commission to "review and act upon petitions submitted by Indian groups which apply for federal recognition." If this legislation becomes law, a new body, outside the BIA, would have the authority to provide recommendations on acknowledgment.

Currently, the Branch of Acknowledgment and Research within the BIA is charged with reviewing and evaluating petitions for acknowledgment, and providing reports and recommendations to the assistant secretary for Indian affairs. The assistant secretary then provides recommendations to the secretary of Interior for final determination.

This process has come under fire over the past several years by those applying for recognition, members of Congress and tribes already recognized by the federal government.

Criticism has ranged from problems with standards used in meeting the recognition criteria, to the ability of the BIA to objectively make a determination regarding acknowledgment.

Under its regulations, the BIA bases its decisions on whether an applicant meets seven criteria: 1) the identification of the petitioner as Indian from historical times; 2) demonstration of a community from historical times; 3) demonstration of political influence; 4) evidence of a governing system; 5) a list of tribal members; 6) that current members are not members of any other tribe; and 7) that the petitioner was not formally terminated by the government.

While the administration has expressed its support for some aspects of the bill, some officials fear Interior may lose too much authority.

"S. 611 establishes criteria and standards for acknowledgment through legislation, rather than regulation and the administration supports this change as a means of giving clear congressional direction as to what the criteria for acknowledgment should be," said Kevin Gover, assistant secretary for Indian affairs, at a hearing on the bill. "But we object to language contained in the bill that would remove the authority of the department to acknowledge tribes."

However, with a green light from the Senate Committee on Indians Affairs, the bill is expected to receive favorable support in the Senate. The bill is expected to be considered for a floor vote in the next few weeks.