A U.S. Senate committee plans a Wednesday hearing into the government's "broken" process for acknowledging American Indian tribes
Federal recognition makes tribes eligible for economic assistance, housing grants and other government benefits. But some Indian groups have seen their petitions for recognition languish for decades without a decision from the Interior Department.
Members of the Senate Indian Affairs committee including its chairman, North Dakota Democrat Byron Dorgan, say the process is broken and needs reform.
They point to the experience of Montana's Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa, which filed its recognition petition in 1978, the same year the current process was established by Congress.
It took 31 years for the tribe to get a negative decision from Interior's Bureau of Indian Affairs - an outcome Montana's Congressional delegation has vowed to overturn.
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Little Shell Chairman John Sinclair said the $2 million spent on his tribe's recognition effort "show that the process is completely run amok."
More than 70,000 pages of documents were generated for the BIA's eventual decision, which Sinclair said amounts to a stack of paperwork 35 feet high.
"Simply put, the administrative recognition process is a mess and, in all fairness and justice to Indian people, the Congress must step in and fix it," he said in remarks prepared for delivery at the hearing.
The Little Shell's approximately 4,300 members were recognized by the state of Montana in 2000.
They trace their drive for recognition to the 1860s, when the related Pembina Band of Chippewa Indians signed a treaty with the U.S. government that was ratified by the Senate.
In 1892, when the government created a commission to negotiate for a land cessation for some Chippewa, Chief Little Shell refused to accept the terms and his people were later carved out of the agreement.
In subsequent decades, the tribe's members wandered the Northern Plains before eventually settling across Montana and adjacent states and provinces.
They have no reservation.