The U.S. Government officially recognizes Native American tribes. Under Federal Indian Law, these communities are afforded certain legal, regulatory and financial rights and privileges to which non-recognized tribes do not have legal rights. In the past, federal recognition of a Tribe was granted in one of three ways: 1) through the Federal Acknowledgment Process (“FAP” or “recognition process”) established in 1978, 2) through legislative (Congressional) authority, or 3) through court action. Historically, the recognition process has been controversial, slow and inconsistent.
In 2008 and 2009, Professor Patty Ferguson-Bohnee, Director of the Indian Legal Clinic (ILC), testified at oversight hearings, before the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, on the Federal Acknowledgment Process (FAP). The testimony stressed that the FAP suffered from lack of transparency, inconsistent standards, a lack of resources and untimely response. Indeed, it sometimes took decades for a tribe to receive a response from the Office of Federal Acknowledgment. In addition, the extensive economic resources needed to hire legal and historical experts to meet the standards being used to review the applications were often outside the reach of tribes.
In 2012, the ILC determined that to get a better understanding of the challenges and impact the FAP had on tribes, it was necessary to undertake a study. To that end, the ILC developed and conducted the most recent comprehensive survey of unrecognized tribes to-date. The survey asked for information on membership, state and federal recognition status and challenges faced in obtaining recognition, and financial resources and needs. The survey was sent to 350 tribes across the nation.
In 2014, The ILC hosted a (first of its kind) two-day conference focusing solely on non-recognized tribes. With 160 speakers and attendees present, the conference brought together tribal leadership and members, consultants who have assisted unrecognized tribes in establishing and exercising rights, and other interested people to discuss challenges faced by unrecognized tribes. Attendees also participated in sessions that focused on identifying obstacles and proposing solutions to the then-current recognition framework.
At the same time, the U.S. Department of the Interior announced its proposal for new regulations in an effort to improve the federal recognition process. On July 1, 2015, new regulations were issued by the Department (25 CFR 83.21-22). To learn more about the Office of Federal Acknowledgment, including a list of currently pending petitions and decisions, click here.