Lawmakers call on US Interior Department to slow down overhaul of tribal recognition rules

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HARTFORD, Connecticut — Several congressional members called on the U.S. Interior Department Thursday to slow down an overhaul of the rules for granting federal recognition to American Indian tribes, saying more study is needed of problems that could result from lowering the bar for the coveted status.

U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, a Utah Republican who recently became chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, sent a letter with four other lawmakers outlining their concerns to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.

"We do not support the sweeping changes that have been proposed to the criteria," the lawmakers wrote.

Federal recognition has been granted to 566 American tribes, and is sought because it brings increased health and education benefits to tribal members in addition to land protections and opportunities for commercial development.

Tribes have been pushing for years for Congress or the Interior Department to revise the process. The overhaul would be the first in two decades.

In Connecticut, the governor and the entire congressional delegation have spoken out against the rule changes, which could make it easier for three small tribes to win recognition and revive long-simmering land claims. Two Connecticut Democrats, Rep. Joe Courtney and Rep. Elizabeth Esty, are among the lawmakers who signed the letter.

The lawmakers say other states may not grasp the significance of the changes proposed for the recognition process that has been criticized as slow, inconsistent and overly susceptible to political influence.

"We are concerned that the Department's proposed rules fail to address many of the issues that have been identified and could create new problems that lead to unintended and unjustifiable outcomes," the lawmakers wrote.

One of the more controversial changes is a new requirement that tribes demonstrate political authority since 1934, where they previously had to show continuity from "historical times."

Supporters of the rule change say it helps to remove unfair burdens. Advocates say that some tribes have been denied recognition because records were lost or burned over hundreds of years, and any tribe that was still together by 1934 had overcome histories of mistreatment.

The letter urges the Interior Department to hold off on putting out final regulations until issues with recognition can be evaluated more thoroughly. The other congressional members who signed the letter are Rep. Don Young, an Alaska Republican, and Rep. Mike Thompson, a California Democrat.

A spokeswoman for the Interior Department said the agency is reviewing the letter.

The Interior Department's Bureau of Indian Affairs proposed the new rules in 2013 to make tribal acknowledgment more transparent and the process more efficient. The department, which has held hearings around the country and received hundreds of comments from the public, proposed formal changes last May that were expected to be finalized soon.

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