Republican Representatives are attempting to undermine tribal sovereignty yet again, this time attempting to pass legislation that would render it more difficult for tribes to obtain recognized federal status.
On October 20th, Republican Representative Rob Bishop introduced H.R.3764 or the “Tribal Recognition Act of 2015”. This bill is intended to remove the Bureau of Indian Affairs authority to recognize American Indian tribes, and give those rights exclusively Congress instead
The Lakota People’s Law Project questions the motives for Bishop’s desire to strip the BIA’s power, asserting that terminating this power could undermine tribal sovereignty, attempt to blot out their individual cultures through assimilation and seize natural resources for the purpose of commercial development.
Bishop sits as chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, which was recently criticized by the BIA’s assistant secretary Kevin Washburn. Washburn declared that the committee’s statements and questioning, “harkened back to the termination era” lasting from the 1940’s to the late 1960’s, where it was official federal policy to eliminate collective tribes by attempting to assimilate American Indians as individuals.
If H.R 3764 is passed, petitions to recognize tribes will be reviewed exclusively by Bishop, and the Speaker of the House.
Washburn’s criticisms are not without substance. Representative Don Young of the Natural Resources Committee released documents citing the General Allotment act of 1887 as “humane”, completely ignoring the reality of this covetous legislation, which sought to end collective tribal landholding, and more than halved the land controlled by the many tribes.
This new assault on tribal sovereignty is an echo of earlier legislation meant to disenfranchise American Indians and remove tribal authority.
Bishop’s attempt to take away power from the BIA is found near the bottom of H.R.3764 where it states
SEC. 11. CLARIFICATION OF FEDERAL RECOGNITION AUTHORITY.
(a) Act Of Congress Required.—An Indian group may receive Federal acknowledgment (or re-acknowledgment) as an Indian tribe only by an Act of Congress. The Secretary may not grant Federal acknowledgment (or re-acknowledgment) to any Indian group. “
This later portion of the bill also explicitly states that “The Secretary” of the BIA may not recognize tribes. This degrades the process of petitioning for Federal recognition to a point where the decisions regarding recognition are subject to more arbitrary criteria.
First, if congress has the only say in tribal recognition, then its decisions cannot be subject to litigation. Unlike the BIA whose decision in recognizing a tribe must be a “yes” or “no”, Congressional decisions can hang, and remain ambiguous. Until a clear decision is made, which is not required by H.R 3764, tribes cannot file a lawsuit to appeal any decisions.
Second, passing H.R 3764 as it is currently written could terminate the status of any tribe that has been recognized outside of a congressional decision. Washburn criticized this hidden problem with the bill during his testimony at the Natural Resources committee’s hearing on the bill on October 28th.
He said that “[H.R 3764] could terminate the status of 229 tribes currently recognized in Alaska”. Citing a hearing in the Natural Resources committee on Sep 26th, where members of the committee disputed the legitimacy of tribes existing in Alaska.
Finally, H.R 3764 would make tribal recognition into a politically motivated task that could harm tribal sovereignty,instead of the objective and nonpartisan process the BIA currently uses. Petitioning for tribal recognition with the BIA requires the bureau to review documents of lineage, and to amass other forms of evidence to establish the legitimacy of a tribe and its members.
Congressional recognition can be started or stopped at the whim of a committee member, and be lobbied with stipulations that seriously harm tribal sovereignty. Any law that recognizes a tribe or tribal lands can be riddled with stipulations that restrict land usage or taxes that water down the potential sovereignty of tribes.
Even with clear opposition from the United South and Eastern Tribes and the Ute Tribe of Utah, the bill is being supported by Republican representatives. Representative Don Young dismissed the complaints of the tribes and claimed they were influenced by “lobbyists”, ignoring the completely legitimate concerns of American Indian tribal leaders.
Congress, along with presidential executive orders and federal administration acts have always been able to federally recognized tribes. However, the “Tribal recognition act of 2015” would make it so that all recognitions must explicitly be approved by Congress. This would severely slow down the process of petitioning for federal recognition of tribes by reversing the legitimacy of some tribes and requiring they be reaffirmed by Congress.
Given the inefficient speeds that lawmakers operate with at the federal level, this could take decades. The normally arduous process of recognition will only become more difficult, and conservative members of congress may work to actively impede federal recognition for tribes.
Representatives Rob Bishop and Don Young seem to not care about the best interests of the tribes. They propose legislation that will only hinder tribal affairs, and give their clearly anti-Native agenda power over any new tribal applications.
Instead, American Indian tribes should be consulted to find a solution to making tribal recognition more efficient and equitable, without congressmen pretending to do so for political gains. H.R 3764 is masked as a step forward, but in reality reverts the issue of tribal sovereignty to a 19th century mindset.