American Indians Leaders Highlight Unfairness to Overhaul Tribal Recognition Process, Reject Push for H.R. 3764

Congressman Don Young (Alaska - R) chairs House Natural Resources committee

Congressman Don Young (Alaska – R) chairs House Natural Resources committee

Published December 8, 2015

WASHINGTON – American Indian leaders today highlighted their opposition to the premise of this morning’s Natural Resources Committee hearing on H.R. 3764, introduced by Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah), which would make federal recognition of tribes dependent solely on congressional approval rather than Interior Department expert analysis. The bill opens the door to congressional reconsideration of nearly 40 years of federal trust and treaty obligations and politicizes a process that has traditionally focused on historical, cultural and biological factors.

In testimony before today’s panel, Brian Patterson, President of the United South and Eastern Tribes, Inc., (USET) objected to Bishop’s bill on several grounds, including the length of time it would take Congress to recognize a new tribe and Congress’ lack of historical and genealogical expertise required to determine a tribe’s status. Patterson testified in part:

Executive recognition provides an orderly process, administered by experts, such as ethno-historians, genealogists, anthropologists, and other technical staff, that is insulated from political considerations unrelated to the historic legitimacy of a Tribal Nation. USET is deeply concerned that placing sole authority for recognition in the hands of Congress will unduly inject unrelated political considerations into a process that is at the heart of the federal trust responsibility. [. . .] [E]ven if the legislation were to prescribe a timeline, there is virtually no way to assure that a federal recognition bill would not languish in Congress for months, years, or even indefinitely for reasons unrelated to the merits of a Tribe’s request for federal recognition.

“The Cherokee name continues to be a popular front for groups seeking federal recognition,” Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation Bill John Baker said in questioning the direction of today’s hearing. “In fact, there have been more than 40 such groups who have submitted applications for federal acknowledgment, making fraudulent claims against our historical right. As such, the Cherokee Nation opposes any effort which would make it easier for these non-Indian groups to usurp our sovereignty, unique history, and culture. Our core concern is that H.R. 3764 would afford additional opportunities for these fraudulent groups to seek federal recognition.”

In an Oct. 27 letter to Bishop, the Ute Indian Tribe strongly opposed H.R. 3764, writing in part, “Federal recognition of Indian tribes should not be subject to Congressional politics. In some cases, partisan politics or a single U.S. Senator seeking to filibuster could prevent a deserving tribe from being recognized. In other cases, a politically powerful group could get recognized as an Indian tribe whether or not they have a history of being an Indian tribe.”

The Ute letter also voiced concern about the lack of clear guidelines for Congress to follow in making recognition determinations, and in Congress’ ability to properly understand and interpret genealogical, historical and cultural data currently used by the Department of the Interior to make tribal recognition determinations.

“The Republican leadership’s record on tribal sovereignty is troubling at best and offensive at worst, and I join with everyone calling for an end to these politicized efforts to pit tribes against each other,” said Ranking Member Raúl M. Grijalva, the Committee’s top Democrat. “We know how to improve the tribal recognition process without injecting congressional politics or shutting out some tribes that should be recognized. The way forward is there if we’d just follow it. The Republican majority just needs to find some political willpower and stop trying to divide and conquer Indian Country.”

Today’s hearing is the latest in a string of Republican affronts to tribal sovereignty, history and culture.

  • When Chairman Bishop was asked how he felt about the national monuments President Obama designated during the summer in California, Texas and Nevada, he called the centuries-old petroglyphsand rock art at the Nevada site “bull crap” and said, “That’s not an antiquity.”
  • Don Young (R-Alaska), who chairs the Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs subcommittee, lecturedZuni Pueblo and Navajo Nation representatives at a July 15 hearing about accepting whatever decision Congress makes on a land dispute at Fort Wingate, New Mexico, saying: “Either you take what we’re going to give you and be happy, or you’re going to lose it. You better be happy with what you’re going to get.”
  • In April, the Committee Republicans held a hearing on federal tribal recognition standards proposed by the Obama Administration, dubbing it The Obama Administration’s Part 83 Revisions and How They May Allow the Interior Department to Create Tribes, not Recognize Them.

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