Indian Issues:

Timeliness of the Tribal Recognition Process Has Improved, but It Will Take Years to Clear the Existing Backlog of Petitions

GAO-05-347T: Published: Feb 10, 2005. Publicly Released: Feb 10, 2005.

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Robin M. Nazzaro
(202) 512-6246


Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800

The Bureau of Indian Affairs' (BIA) regulatory process for recognizing tribes was established in 1978. The process requires groups that are petitioning for recognition to submit evidence that they meet certain criteria--basically that the petitioner has continuously existed as an Indian tribe since historic times. Critics of the process claim that it produces inconsistent decisions and takes too long. Congressional policymakers have struggled with the tribal recognition issue for over 27 years. H.R. 4933 and H.R. 5134, introduced in the 108th Congress, and H.R. 512, which was introduced last week, have focused on the timeliness of the recognition process. This testimony is based in part on GAO's report, Indian Issues: Improvements Needed in Tribal Recognition Process (GAO-02-49, November 2, 2001). Specifically, this testimony addresses (1) the timeliness of the recognition process as GAO reported in November 2001 and (2) the actions the Department of the Interior's Office of Federal Acknowledgment has taken since 2001 to improve the timeliness of the recognition process.

In November 2001, GAO reported that BIA's tribal recognition process was ill equipped to provide timely responses to tribal petitions for federal recognition. BIA's regulations outline a process for evaluating a petition that was designed to take about 2 years. However, the process was being hampered by limited resources, a lack of time frames, and ineffective procedures for providing information to interested third parties, such as local municipalities and other Indian tribes. As a result, there were a growing number of completed petitions waiting to be considered. In 2001, BIA officials estimated that it could take up to 15 years for all the completed petitions to be resolved. To correct these problems, we recommended that BIA develop a strategy that identified how to improve the responsiveness of the process for federal recognition. Such a strategy was to include a systematic assessment of the resources available and needed that could lead to the development of a budget commensurate with the workload. While Interior's Office of Federal Acknowledgment has taken a number of important steps to improve the responsiveness of the tribal recognition process, it still could take 4 or more years, at current staff levels, to work through the existing backlog of petitions currently under review, as well as those that are ready and waiting for consideration. In response to GAO's 2001 report, two vacancies within the Office of Federal Acknowledgment were filled, resulting in a professional staff of three research teams, each consisting of a cultural anthropologist, historian, and genealogist. In addition, the September 2002 Strategic Plan, issued by the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs in response to GAO's report, has been almost completely implemented by the Office of Federal Acknowledgment. The main impediment to completely implementing the Strategic Plan and to making all of the information that has been compiled more accessible to the public is the fact that BIA continues to be disconnected from the Internet because of ongoing computer security concerns involving Indian trust funds.

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