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Proposed Tribal Recognition Changes Hold Promise, Pitfalls

The U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs wants to rewrite the rules for when a native tribe is officially a tribe in the eyes of the federal government. This again raises hopes for status and federal benefits among some unrecognized tribes in the West, but they still face a bumpy road.

The proposal to streamline and simplify the process of tribal recognition encourages leaders of native groups and bands currently frozen out of federal programs. But they have to contend with existing tribes who fear having to share territory, resources or casino customers.

That's where Sam Robinson, the acting chairman of the Chinook tribal council, sees a potential pitfall. He pointed to part of the proposal that would allow previously denied tribes like his to re-petition for recognition only with consent of affected third parties.

"To appease another tribe would be very difficult for many," Robinson said. "On top of that, why should one tribe be able to tell you whether you are Indian or not?"

Robinson's ancestors welcomed Lewis & Clark to the mouth of the Columbia River and later signed a treaty, which however was not ratified by Congress.

Other tribal groups that might get another shot at official status include the Snohomish and Duwamish in Western Washington and several small bands near the Oregon-California border.

The Chinook Indian Nation and the Duwamish tribe were accorded federal recognition in 2001 in the last days of the Clinton Administration. But it didn't last very long. The subsequent Bush Administration repealed the recognitions based on perceived irregularities in the review process.

The BIA is holding public hearings and tribal consultations around the country this month, including sessions in Portland on July 15. There are currently 566 federally-recognized tribes in the U.S.

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.