A delegation from the Indian Legal Clinic at the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law attended a meeting of the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs on Thursday, April 24, on Capitol Hill.
Patty Ferguson-Bohnee, the Clinic's director, testified before the committee during a hearing on recommendations for improving the Federal Acknowledgment Process. Ferguson-Bohnee traveled to Washington, D.C., with Alejandro Acosta, Jerome Clarke, Tana Fitzpatrick, Chia Halpern and Sebastian Zavala, all students in the College's Indian Legal Program.
The clinic was invited last fall by U.S. Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), who chairs the committee, to evaluate the complicated process by which Native American tribes may be recognized by the U.S. government. Such recognition enables Native communities to receive federal aid and tax exemptions, gives Native groups an authoritative voice when dealing with the federal government and usually exempts them from local laws and restrictions.
Ferguson-Bohnee has been working to achieve federal recognition for her own tribe, the 700-member Pointe-au-Chiens, and has been researching and writing about the process for the past 15 years. Numerous past bills in Congress have attempted to fix the process, which has numerous problems, she said.
The Office of Federal Acknowledgment, housed in the Department of the Interior, is under funded, and there's no financial support for petitioning tribes, either, Ferguson-Bohnee said. Petitioners are being required to meet more criteria than is called for in the regulations, written in 1978, and they have great difficulty accessing documents in the process, she said. Also, a process that was intended to take a year frequently takes more than 25 years, Ferguson-Bohnee said.
The law students spent several months reviewing many documents, interviewing people and producing a 43-page report containing their recommendations. It was well-received by the Senate committee, she said.
"It was a great educational experience because the students were able to view the process, not as just an academic exercise," Ferguson-Bohnee said. "It was interesting for them to review the regulations and how they have been implemented. They now have a better understanding of Congress and the BIA's impact on recognition of tribes."
Acosta, who will graduate from law school on May 9, was the lead student attorney on the project. He and other students in the clinic spent many hours researching the legislative history of the process and legislation to improve it, conducting interviews and writing the recommendations.
"We provided an unbiased student critique of the regulations," said Acosta, a member of the Cherokee Nation, which is federally recognized. "The key is to create an independent commission to make these decisions because I think there's a conflict of interest with having a department make the decisions on new tribes, because they already have obligations to existing tribes.
"But it doesn't have to be unrecognized tribes versus recognized tribes. There should be enough money to go around."
The group also toured and ate lunch at the National Museum of the American Indian with executive director Keven Gover, a professor on leave from the College of Law.