BIA official says Indian recognition problems are getting worse

Friday, February 8th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The federal government's notoriously slow process of deciding if Indian tribes are sovereign nations, a status that can confer significant rights including the ability to open gambling casinos, is getting slower, a top U.S. Indian official said Thursday.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs is falling further behind in reviewing tribal petitions for recognition as sovereigns because of a tight budget and inadequate staffing, Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Neal McCaleb told the House Government Reform subcommittee on energy policy, natural resources, and regulatory affairs.

``We're going to lose ground, not gain ground,'' McCaleb, Oklahoma's former transportation secretary, said under questioning by Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., who chastised him for failing to ask his superiors for a bigger budget from Congress to handle the workload.

``This is going to blow up in your face,'' said Shays, who is worried that the courts will assume greater control over the recognition process if BIA can't do the job.

In Shays' district, the Golden Hill Paugussett tribe filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court to get the BIA to speed up consideration of its petition. It's expecting a decision in about a year.

President Bush requested nearly $2.3 billion for the bureau in the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1, 2002, about $24 million more than the current budget.

Federally recognized tribes can participate in multibillion dollar federal aid programs and may get significant rights as sovereigns who predate colonial America, including exemptions from state and local jurisdictions and the ability to run gambling operations.

In 1999, 193 federally recognized tribes reported an estimated $10 billion in gambling revenue, surpassing the amounts that the Nevada casinos collected that year, according to the General Accounting Office, Congress' investigative arm.

The bureau has about 23 petitions for recognition under review, and officials have estimated it could take up to 15 years to resolve those applications. Typically, two applications a year can be decided, McCaleb said.

Another 67 petitions have partial documentation, and more than 80 other tribes have started the process, he said.

There are also new applications coming in, supporting materials for existing cases, and requests for information from interested third parties such as local governments in tribal areas _ all of which add to the workload, experts said.

A November GAO report highlighted problems in the recognition process, including lengthy delays and confusion about the basis of decision-making. Also, local governments have complained that they have too little say too late in the process, mostly because the bureau is not required to seek public comment until it makes a proposed finding in a case.