Indian Issues:

Improvements Needed in Tribal Recognition Process

GAO-02-49: Published: Nov 2, 2001. Publicly Released: Nov 2, 2001.

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The Indian gambling industry has flourished since the enactment of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act in 1988. Nearly 200 tribes generated about $10 billion in annual revenues in 1999 from their gambling operations. Because of weaknesses in the federal recognition process, the basis for tribal recognition decisions by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) is not always clear and the length of time involved can be substantial. Despite an increasing workload, the number of BIA staff assigned to evaluate the petitions has fallen by about 35 percent since 1993. Just as important, the process lacks effective procedures for promptly addressing the increased workload. In particular, the process does not impose effective deadlines that create a sense of urgency, and procedures for providing information to interested third parties are ineffective. GAO summarized this report in testimony before Congress; see: Indian Issues: More Consistent and Timely Tribal Recognition Process Needed, by Barry T. Hill, Director for Natural Resources and Environment, before the Subcommittee on Energy Policy, Natural Resources and Regulatory Affairs, House Committee on Government Reform. GAO-01-415T, Feb. 7 (nine pages).

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In its comments on GAO's November 2001 report, the Department of the Interior agreed with the recommendation and outlined corrective actions to address the recommendation. Interior noted that the precedents set in prior recognition decisions should be made more readily available. To assure consistency and improve the public's understanding of recognition decisions, Interior agreed to develop a plan to make the precedents more accessible and to provide clearer guidelines to the regulations. The Strategic Plan to improve the tribal recognition process was issued by the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs on September 30, 2002. In accordance with the plan, Interior developed a CD-ROM compilation of prior decisions and related documents that is a valuable tool for petitions and practitioners involved in the tribal recognition process. In addition, on March 31, 2005, Interior published in the Federal Register a notice revising and clarifying certain internal procedures for managing the tribal recognition process.

    Recommendation: To ensure more predictable and timely tribal recognition decisions, the Secretary of the Interior should direct BIA to provide a clearer understanding of the basis used in recognition decisions by developing and using transparent guidelines that help interpret key aspects of the criteria and supporting evidence used in federal recognition decisions.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In its comments on the report, the Department of the Interior agreed with the recommendation and outlined corrective actions to address the recommendation. On September 12, 2002, the Department of the Interior's Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs approved the strategic plan developed in response to GAO's recommendation. The strategic plan included a complete analysis of the workload and needs assessment for the tribal recognition process.

    Recommendation: To ensure more predictable and timely tribal recognition decisions, the Secretary of the Interior should direct BIA to develop a strategy that identifies how to improve the responsiveness of the process for federal recognition. This strategy should include a systematic assessment of the resources available and needed that leads to development of a budget commensurate with workload.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

 

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