Indian Issues:

More Consistent and Timely Tribal Recognition Process Needed

GAO-02-415T: Published: Feb 7, 2002. Publicly Released: Feb 7, 2002.

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In 1978, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) established a regulatory process for recognizing tribes. The process requires tribes that are petitioning for recognition to submit evidence that they have continuously existed as an Indian tribe since historic times. Recognition establishes a formal government-to-government relationship between the United States and a tribe. The quasi-sovereign status created by this relationship exempts some tribal lands from most state and local laws and regulations, including those that regulate gambling. GAO found that the basis for BIA's tribal recognition decisions is not always clear. Although petitioning tribes must meet set criteria to be granted recognition, no guidance exists to clearly explain how to interpret key aspects of the criteria. This lack of guidance creates controversy and uncertainty for all parties about the basis for decisions. The recognition process is also hampered by limited resources; a lack of time; and ineffective procedures for providing information to interested third parties, such as local municipalities and other Indian tribes. As a result, the number of completed petitions waiting to be considered is growing. BIA estimates that it may take up to 15 years before all currently completed petitions are resolved; the process for evaluating a petition was supposed to take about two years. This testimony summarizes a November report (GAO-02-49).

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