Interior Dept. attempts to smooth tribal recognition process

By Mary Clare Jalonick
Washington, D.C. (AP)
Washington, D.C. - Jimmy Goins, chair of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, left, accompanied by John Sinclair, President, Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa of Montana, testifies on Capitol Hill during September before the Senate Indian Affairs.
AP Photo by Pablo
Martinez Monsivai

Tribes that gain federal recognition stand to gain substantial housing, education and health benefits. But the process isn’t easy – some tribes have been waiting decades for the government to acknowledge them.

The Interior Department is taking steps to speed up that process, a government official told Congress during September.

Unrecognized tribes from Montana, North Carolina, Michigan and Florida testified before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, all saying they have waited years and submitted stacks of paperwork to the department. Tribal members have died waiting for better health care, the tribes’ representatives said.

Montana’s Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians, a tribe of more than 4,000 based in Great Falls, say they have been fighting for federal recognition for many decades.

The U.S. Interior Department granted the tribe preliminary recognition in 2000. But the tribe still doesn’t have reservation land, housing, medical care and other benefits that come with federal recognition.

“Every day that passes has concrete impacts on the tribe,” tribal president John Sinclair told the senators.

R. Lee Fleming, director of the Interior Department’s Office of Federal Acknowledgment, said the Bureau of Indian Affairs will attempt to expedite the process by trying to eliminate paperwork and layers of bureaucracy that have stalled some tribes’ efforts.

The department is also considering hiring additional staff to work on the recognition process and establishing firmer timelines so that petitions move along.

“Our goal is to improve the process so that all groups seeking acknowledgment can be processed and completed within a set time frame,” Fleming said.

Also testifying were representatives of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, the Muscogee Nation of Florida and Michigan’s Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians.

“We have been trapped in the BIA’s bureaucracy for over 30 years and we have nothing but expense and frustration to show for it,” said Ann D. Tucker, a tribal chairwoman for the Muscogee Nation based in the tiny Florida Pandhandle town of Bruce.

The U.S. House voted to give federal recognition to the Lumbee Tribe earlier this year. Montana’s congressional delegation has introduced legislation that would give similar acknowledgment to the Little Shell.

Montana Sen. Jon Tester, a Democratic member of the committee, said recognition shouldn’t require an act of Congress.

“This is a broken process that needs to be repaired,” Tester said.