WASHINGTON - The BIA's unprecedented Columbus Day 2005 decision to reverse its own previous determinations and withdraw federal acknowledgement from Connecticut's Schaghticoke and Eastern Pequot tribal nations has become emblematic of what is wrong with the federal recognition process, tribal leaders say.
The BIA decision took place at the height of the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, with its unfolding revelations about political influence, corruption and deceit among elected officials and appointees. But political influence is only one problem in a recognition process burdened by lethargic slowness, inflexible criteria, expensiveness and a culture not geared to serving the tribal nation, tribal leaders say.
Things haven't improved much in the past two years. Some tribal leaders say the situation has actually worsened since then.
''Because of the political backlash to the Schaghticokes' recognition, I think there is a lot more resistance to all groups in the recognition process,'' John Sinclair, president of the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians of Montana, told Indian Country Today.
The Little Shell Tribe's quest for acknowledgement began in 1935, but the tribe is now seeking acknowledgement from Congress. The tribe received a proposed positive finding from the Interior/BIA in 2000, but was also asked to submit more documentation.
''We now find ourselves in an uncertain situation where we fear that the department may reverse its finding even though we have submitted thousands of pages of additional evidence'' and no one has objected to the tribe's acknowledgement, Sinclair said.
The problem is the conflation of federal recognition with casinos, Sinclair said.
''Both gaming and anti-gaming interests are lobbying politicians in order to prevent more tribes attaining recognition and opening new casinos. The Little Shell, who have no current plans to open a casino, are held back in the process because of efforts to stop the Schaghticoke recognition.''
Ann Tucker, chairman of the Muscogee Nation of Florida, said she had an epiphany after attending a hearing about STN's petition.
''I listened closely to the Office of Federal Acknowledgement's statements and really understood that no matter how long we waited, how hard we tried, how many pieces of paper we filed, all it really took was one of numerous types of anti-Indian influences to single-handedly destroy everything we had worked generations for. We came to the conclusion that the only way we would succeed was to take our case to Congress, government to government,'' Tucker said.
From a national standpoint, Tucker added, ''Tribes who do not have first-hand experience with the recognition process have been furnished an excellent example by the STN debacle of what it is like to be fighting in these trenches.''
Since the BIA process was institutionalized in 1978, only 16 tribes have been recognized through the BIA while Congress has acknowledged 28 tribes. More than 300 tribes are seeking federal acknowledgement.
On paper, the review process takes 25 months. In reality, the process takes around 15 years, Lee Fleming, the director of the Office of Federal Acknowledgement, testified at a recent Senate hearing.
The seven mandatory criteria are too unyielding, Sinclair said. A tribe could be denied acknowledgement if it lacks documentation for one criterion for a short period even if it provides documentation for the years before and after that period, ''even though the documents cannot be found due to the fact that government agencies kept no records for whatever reason and the petitioner was unable to keep records due to racial and poverty conditions.''
The process views Indians as a homogenous blur, Tucker said.
''Tribes live in different places where different things happened in our history - in our case, Jim Crow laws. You cannot standardize Indians and say that we are all alike and have to be judged alike without regard for the places we have had to survive,'' Tucker said.
Tucker also questioned the integrity of a long and expensive process that ''can be reversed along the way by outside interests'' that may have financial or other biases, and the impossibly expensive process for tribes without resources.
Ron Yob, chairman of the Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians of Michigan, said nothing has changed for years.
''Just yesterday I was looking back at some stuff from 1994 when the Little River and Little Traverse bands were recognized and some of the comments were about how flawed the BIA process was back then and it was almost the same words as now. I don't think anyone has ever favored the recognition process,'' Yob said.
All three tribes have been in the BIA process for decades and have also turned to Congress where their requests have also languished.
Grand River Bands has been waiting seven years for acknowledgement legislation.
''We're just not the priority, I guess. We're kind of always on the back burner and it's just hard to move ahead,'' Yob said.
The leaders had mixed feelings about the idea of an ''independent'' commission to administer federal acknowledgement.
''A separate commission could be effective, but the entire process needs to be streamlined and modified to accommodate the situations that tribes in the current process find themselves,'' Sinclair said.
Asked if it was possible for indigenous peoples to free themselves of the political influence that has been embedded in the relationship between the tribes and the dominant culture from the earliest days of genocide and conquest, all three leaders expressed hope and the need for solidarity.
''With the U.S. government's plenary powers, I don't see how tribes can be completely autonomous, but I see tribes moving more and more towards independence and self-determination. One thing that has to happen is that tribes need to stop working against other tribes, recognized or otherwise. The attitude is that we have the few crumbs that the federal government doles out and we're going to undercut other Native people in order to keep it instead of working together towards a common goal. This attitude has held back Native people since the Europeans came to this continent,'' Sinclair said.