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Indian Issues: Basis for BIA's Tribal Recognition Decisions Is Not Always Clear

GAO-02-936T Published: Sep 17, 2002. Publicly Released: Sep 17, 2002.
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Federal recognition of an Indian tribe can dramatically affect economic and social conditions for the tribe and the surrounding communities because these tribes are eligible to participate in federal assistance programs. There are currently 562 recognized tribes with a total membership of 1.7 million, and several hundred groups are currently seeking recognition. In fiscal year 2002, Congress appropriated $5 billion for programs and funding, almost exclusively for recognized tribes. Recognition also establishes a formal government-to-government relationship between the United States and a tribe. The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988, which regulated Indian gaming operations, permits a tribe to operate casinos on land in trust if the state in which it lies allows casino-like gaming and if the tribe has entered into a compact with the state regulating its gaming businesses. In 1999, federally recognized tribes reported $10 billion in gaming revenue, surpassing the amounts that the Nevada casinos collected that year. Owing to the rights and benefits that accrue with recognition and the controversy surrounding Indian gaming, the Bureau of Indian Affairs' (BIA) regulatory process has been subject to intense scrutiny by groups seeking recognition and other interested parties--including already recognized tribes and affected state and local governments. BIA's regulatory process for recognizing tribes was established in 1978 and requires that groups that are petitioning for recognition 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. The basis for BIA's tribal recognition decisions is not always clear. Although there are set criteria that petitioning tribes must meet to be granted recognition, there is no guidance that clearly explains how to interpret key aspects of the criteria. The lack of guidance over what level of evidence is sufficient to demonstrate that a tribe has continued to exist over time creates controversy and uncertainty for all parties about the basis for decisions reached.

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Eligibility criteriaFederal aid programsIndian affairs legislationIntergovernmental relationsNative American gamingFederal recognitionGamingIndian issuesIndian gamingLocal governments