Fed Recognition New Rule Attacked in Interior’s Appropriations Bill

Gale Courey Toensing

A rider that would stop the Bureau of Indian Affairs from revising procedures for federal acknowledgment of Indian tribes has been attached to the Interior Department’s 2016 spending plan by the House Appropriations Subcommittee.

The rider appears on page 35 of the 135-page appropriations bill.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) lodged the final rule for those new procedures with the Office of Management and Budget on April 20 for review by the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) – the last step before publication in the Federal Register and implementation 30 days later.

The National Congress of American Indians alerted tribal representatives in Washington, D.C., about the rider in a late night email on June 9 from NCAI Executive Director Jacqueline Pata. She included an NCAI resolution from 2013 called “Supporting the Bureau of Indian Affairs Proposed Reform of the Federal Recognition Process” and a letter sent to the subcommittee’s staff urging that the rider “be removed and Congress review the final regulations before taking   action.”

The NCAI did not respond to ICTMN’s request for comment, and a review of the Congressional Record for June 8 and June 9 did not reveal the identity of the legislator responsible for the rider.

The attempt to undercut the BIA is the latest attack in what some tribal leaders say is Congress’s new war on Indian country. In less than two months the House Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs held heated oversight hearings where the termination of federal recognition was discussed and the Interior Department’s authority to take land into trust was challenged by committee members who didn’t seem to know Congress gave Interior that authority.

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The 11th-hour effort to block the final rule is baffling since Congress had two years to challenge it. The BIA worked for a year on revisions before Assistant Secretary – Indian Affairs Kevin K. Washburn released a discussion draft of proposed changes in June 2013. The draft was received enthusiastically by Indian country, but almost instantly attacked by anti-Indian sovereignty crusader Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), who claimed the proposal would give “automatic” recognition to the three Connecticut tribes – Eastern Pequot Tribal Nation, Schaghticoke Tribal Nation and Golden Hill Paugussett Tribe – whose bids for federal recognition he defeated when he was the state’s attorney general. He based his claim of automatic recognition on a provision that said a state-recognized reservation or trust land held by the Interior Department since 1934 would add weight to a tribe’s evidence of continuous community and political authority.

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Following the release of the discussion draft, the BIA held consultations with federally recognized tribal leaders, public meetings with leaders of non-federally recognized tribes and others, and a comment period. There was another round of consultations and public input last summer resulting in the final rule that has not been released yet to the public – or the subcommittee members.

At the subcommittee meeting Wednesday, support for the proposed budget – with the rider – broke along party lines.

House Appropriations  Committee Chairman Harold Rogers (R-KY) and subcommittee Chairman Ken Calvert (R-CA) spoke in favor of the $30.17 billion bill, which includes funding for the Department of the Interior, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Forest Service, the Indian Health Service, and various independent and related agencies.

Both men praised cuts to the EPA’s budget. “The bill takes meaningful steps to shield our economy and defend American jobs from the executive overreach of EPA regulators, provides significant funding for our national resources, and fulfills our commitment to the needs of Indian country,” Calvert said.

House Appropriations Committee ranking member Nita M. Lowey (D-NY) and subcommittee ranking member Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN) spoke against the spending plan.

McCollum noted that the subcommittee held 14 hearings, and almost 150 people testified. “Some of our most moving testimony was from our brothers and sisters in the Native communities who documented the unmet needs that still exist and made a compelling case for the subcommittee to build upon its past work to further the social and economic well-being of Native Americans,” she said.

The $30.17 billion budget proposal is $246 million below the 2015 approved budget level “and when added to other cuts puts us $2 billion below the 2010 appropriations,” McCollum said. “I cannot support this bill as it now stands.”

Although she did not specifically mention the rider to terminate the final rule, McCollum said she was “concerned and disappointed with the two dozen riders  and funding limitations” included in the Interior Department’s proposed appropriations bill.

The subcommittee voted unanimously to send the bill to the full committee, where it likely faces months of debate and amendments.

The Interior Department did not respond to a request for comment by posting time.

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