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Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Administrative Process by Which Groups May Be Acknowledged as Indian Tribes by the Department of the Interior

Jane M. Smith
Legislative Attorney

In 1978, the Department of the Interior (Department) adopted a final rule setting forth the process by which a group may be recognized or acknowledged as an Indian tribe by the Department. Prior to that time, the Department made decisions on an ad hoc basis. However, in the wake of the treaty fishing rights case United States v. Washington and eastern land claims, more groups started seeking recognition as Indian tribes, and the Department could no longer manage the recognition requests on a case-by-case basis. The acknowledgement process, codified in 25 C.F.R. Part 83, sets forth a uniform process and uniform criteria for acknowledging that groups exist as Indian tribes.

The key to federal acknowledgment is continuous political existence of an Indian group from historical times to the present. The federal acknowledgment process does not create tribes, and it does not give groups sovereignty. Rather, it acknowledges a political entity that already exists. To do this, 25 C.F.R. Section 83.7 provides seven mandatory criteria that groups must satisfy in order to establish that they exist and have existed as an autonomous political entity. First, in order to be acknowledged, a group must establish that it has been identified as an Indian entity from 1900 to the present. Second, it must establish that it has existed as a community from historical times to the present. Third, it must establish that it has exercised political control over its members from historical times to the present. Fourth, the group must provide a copy of its governing document, including membership criteria. Fifth, the group must establish that its members descend from a historical Indian tribe or historical Indian tribes that combined and functioned as a single autonomous political entity. Sixth, the membership must be composed principally of persons who are not members of a federally recognized tribe. Finally, the group must establish that it is not the subject of congressional legislation terminating or forbidding the federal-tribal relationship.

Acknowledgment as an Indian tribe means that the group becomes a federally recognized tribe with which the United States has a government-to-government relationship. This relationship makes the tribe and its members eligible for certain benefits, as well as subject to certain protections. It also means that the tribe may exercise jurisdiction over its territory and members generally free from state law, subject to limitations of federal law.

Date of Report: April 26, 2013
Number of Pages: 11
Order Number: R43051
Price: $29.95

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