The federal Bureau of Indian Affairs has its hands full these days. In addition to administering federal programs for 566 recognized Indian tribes, it faces frequent requests to recognize new tribes, bands and splinter groups seeking the benefits of federal recognition. There are at least 26 such groups in South Carolina alone.
In a move to “streamline” the application process for tribes seeking recognition, the Bureau recently proposed to drop a criterion that required tribes to show they had existed as organized communities from the time of “first sustained contact with non-Indians throughout the group’s history.”
In its place the Bureau proposes simply requiring an applicant tribe to show its continuity since 1934, the year that the Indian Reorganization Act established a new rule for determining who is an Indian in the eyes of the federal government.
That should make it easier for a number of applicant tribes to gain recognition and its federal benefits.
And it would make it a lot easier to achieve a major prize that attracts many tribes — the opportunity to run a casino. Under a 1976 Supreme Court ruling, states cannot tax or regulate lands owned by recognized federal tribes. Once a tribe gains federal recognition, any property it owns becomes free from state regulation. Even a poor tribe could find investors to buy land along, say, I-95 and set up a gambling shop.
Certainly the thought of casino revenue has occurred to some of the more than 400 unrecognized tribes and bands seeking a nod from the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
After all, some 240 recognized tribes already run about 460 gambling operations with a 2011 take of $27 billion — not enough to buy back Manhattan Island, but nothing to sneeze at.
Those riches could help explain the increase of those claiming tribal affiliation — though tribal pride is assuredly the primary reason. More than 5.2 million Americans claimed Indian ancestry in the 2010 Census, a 27 percent increase from 2000.
BIA’s proposed “streamlining” rule has raised hackles in some areas where local governments oppose giving local tribes freedom from regulation. It is also likely that some existing recognized tribes will oppose the rule change as creating competition from the new tribes for federal largesse.
The ongoing debate over tribal gambling in South Carolina, and just across the border, in Cleveland County, N.C., will be repeated widely if tribal recognition is expanded at the federal level.
The so-called “streamlining” process might assist federal bureaucrats with their paperwork, but it would have the negative effect outside the Beltway of limiting states’ ability to restrain casino gambling where it is otherwise illegal.
That alone should be sufficient for Congress to reject the rule change.