HARTFORD, Conn. — The U.S. Interior Department on Thursday announced proposed changes to the rules for granting federal recognition to American Indian tribes, revisions that could make it easier for some groups to achieve status that brings increased benefits as well as opportunities for commercial development.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs says it overhauled the rules to make tribal acknowledgment more transparent and efficient.
The changes include a new requirement that tribes demonstrate political authority since 1934; previously they had to show continuity from “historical times.” The change was first proposed last June and stirred criticism that recognition standards were being watered down.
Kevin Washburn, an assistant secretary with Indian Affairs, said the rules are no less rigorous. He said 1934 was chosen because that was the year Congress accepted the existence of tribes as political entities.
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Gerald Gray is chairman of Montana’s Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians. He said the landless tribe of about 4,500 members has been recognized by Montana since 2000, but its bid for federal recognition was rejected in 2009 partly because the tribe could not document continuity through the early part of the 20th century.
“For a lot of the Plains tribes, and Indians in the country as a whole, there’s oral history but not a lot of written history,” Gray said.
The newly published rules represent the first overhaul in two decades for a recognition process that has been criticized as slow, inconsistent and overly susceptible to political influence.
The Interior Department will accept comment for at least 60 days before the rules are finalized.
Federal recognition is coveted because it brings increased health and education benefits to tribes along with land protections and opportunities for casinos and other developments.
Advocates say that some tribes have been denied recognition because records were lost or burned over hundreds of years, and any tribe that was still together by 1934 had overcome histories of mistreatment.
Other rule changes:
• Eighty percent of a group’s membership would have to descend from a tribe that existed in historical times. The rule currently says that membership descend from a historical tribe.
• Thirty percent of a group’s membership would have to comprise a community. The rule now says a “predominant portion” of membership must comprise a community.
• Groups that have been denied recognition in the past would be allowed to submit new petitions under some circumstances. That is currently prohibited.