BILLINGS, Mont. — A Republican proposal to let only Congress decide whether American Indian tribes deserve federal recognition threatens the legitimacy of hundreds of tribes and would add delay to what was long a broken system, an Obama administration official said Wednesday.
The comments came as a House committee considered legislation to block the administration's recent overhaul of the tribal recognition process. Republicans contend that the changes finalized by the Interior Department over the summer lowered the standards for recognizing tribes and diminished the role of lawmakers.
There are 566 federally recognized tribes in the U.S., and groups in Louisiana, Michigan, Florida, California and other states want to join their ranks. Some such as Montana's Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians have waited years or decades for a decision.
Since the recent changes, federal officials announced recognition for yet another group, the Pamunkey Indian Tribe of Virginia, but the matter remains unsettled because the decision is under appeal.
Federal acknowledgement allows tribes to be treated largely as their own nations within U.S. borders, with independent governments and legal systems. It also makes tribes eligible for federal housing, medical care and education.
Republican U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah said during a Wednesday hearing on his proposal that Congress should have the final say in such matters.
But that would bring back the worst of the old system, undermining attempts to create a more transparent and efficient process, Interior Department Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Kevin Washburn said in remarks prepared for Wednesday delivery.
Washburn also said the Republican plan "creates serious doubts" about the legitimacy of more than 200 tribes in Alaska and more than a dozen in California recognized by his agency over the past several decades.
"Every one of those tribes is at risk because they are not Congressionally recognized," he said.
Bishop, who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee, said the recognition system has been a mess for decades. Any tribes that were lawfully recognized would not be affected by his proposal, he said.
"My goal is to empower Native American tribes. We don't have a great record. We do a lot of lip service to it," he said, adding that he would be open to changes to his proposal as long as Congress makes the final decisions.
Existing tribes with casino operations have aired similar concerns about the recent changes to the process.
The ranking Democrat on the Natural Resources subcommittee that is considering the issue, Rep. Raul Ruiz of California, said the proposal would infuse "hyper-partisan" politics into the issue, allowing Bishop and the speaker of the House to control which groups are recognized, since they can decide what matters come up for a vote by lawmakers.
Yet the Interior process also has been tainted by politics, according to past investigations by the agency's Office of Inspector General. That includes a 2002 investigation that found a senior Interior official issued recognition decisions contrary to staff recommendations.
The Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa in Montana has taken a two-pronged approach to seeking recognition, pursuing it through the Interior Department and working with Montana's congressional delegation on legislation to mandate recognition of the tribe and its more than 6,000 enrolled members.
Little Shell Chairman Gerald Gray told The Associated Press on Wednesday that both options should be kept open.
"If it gets bogged down in Interior, tribes shouldn't have to wait years, Congress should be able to pick it up and move it along faster," he said. "If Congress is not going to do anything, then (the Interior Department) should be able to do it."
The tribe petitioned for recognition through the Interior Department in 1978. Gray and other members trace their first attempts to the 1860s, when the related Pembina Band of Chippewa Indians signed a treaty with the U.S. government.
In 1892, when the government created a commission to negotiate land for some Chippewa, Chief Little Shell refused to accept the terms. His people were later carved out of the agreement, and Chief Little Shell's descendants eventually dispersed to scattered areas across Montana and southern Canada.