Department of the Interior Announces Final Federal Recognition Process to Acknowledge Indian Tribes

department of interior press release      Date: June 29, 2015
Contacts: Jessica Kershaw (DOI),
Nedra Darling (ASIA), 202-219-4152

Initiative Reforms a Process Long Criticized as “Broken,” Increases Transparency in Important Review of Tribal Recognition Status

WASHINGTON – U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and Assistant Secretary-Indian Affairs Kevin K. Washburn today released a final rule to reform the regulatory process by which the Department of the Interior officially recognizes Indian tribes. The updated rule promotes a more transparent, timely and consistent process that is flexible enough to account for the unique histories of tribal communities, while maintaining the rigor and integrity of the criteria that have been in place for nearly 40 years.

“Since the beginning of President Obama’s Administration, the Department has worked with tribal and government leaders on improving the federal acknowledgment process, which has been criticized as inconsistent, slow and expensive,” Secretary Jewell said. “This Administration takes very seriously its important trust and treaty responsibilities to Native Americans and Alaska Natives. This updated process for important tribal recognition makes good on a promise to clarify, expedite and honor a meaningful process for federal acknowledgement to our First Americans.”

“This updated rule is the product of extraordinary input from tribal leaders, states, local governments and the public,” said Assistant Secretary Washburn. “We have a responsibility to recognize those tribes that have maintained their identity and self-governance despite previous federal policies expressly aimed at destroying tribes. This new process remains rigorous, but it promotes timely decision-making through expedited processes and increases transparency by posting all publically available petition materials online so that stakeholders are well-informed at each stage of the process. Many of these improvements came from public comments by stakeholders and we are grateful for their guidance.”

To maintain the substantive rigor and integrity of the current regulatory process (described in Part 83, Title 25 – Code of Federal Regulations), the final rule carries forward the current standard of proof and seven mandatory criteria that petitioners must meet to substantiate their claim to tribal identification, community and political authority. To promote fairness and consistent implementation, the new process provides that prior decisions, which found evidence or methodology sufficient to satisfy a particular criterion for a previous petitioner, are sufficient to satisfy that criterion for a present petitioner. The final rule further promotes consistent application by establishing a uniform evaluation period of more than a century, from 1900 to the present, to satisfy the seven mandatory criteria.

Key features of the final rule promote transparency by: 

  • Increasing public access to petition documents for Federal Acknowledgment;
  • Expanding distribution of notices of petitions to include local governments; and
  • Increasing due process by providing for an administrative judge to conduct a comprehensive hearing and issue a recommended decision for proposed negative findings.

In a separate action, Assistant Secretary Washburn issued a policy statement explaining that the Department intends to rely on the newly reformed Part 83 process as the sole administrative avenue for acknowledgment as a tribe as long as the new rule is in effect and being implemented.

To build public trust in the Federal Acknowledgement process, the Department has been working to reform the Part 83 process since the beginning of the Obama Administration. At that time in 2009, Interior initiated its own review. In 2012, the Department identified guiding principles of the reform effort. In recognition of the high level of interest, the Department used a transparent rulemaking approach and significant outreach effort. Before beginning the formal rulemaking initiative, Interior issued a discussion draft in 2013 to facilitate public input on how to improve the process.

Through the discussion draft and ensuing tribal consultations and public meetings, the Department obtained substantial feedback. In total, more than 2,800 commenters provided input on the discussion draft. The Department issued a proposed rule in May of 2014 and extended the public comment period on that proposal in response to requests from tribes, state and local governments, members of Congress and the public. In total, more than 330 unique comments were submitted on the proposed rule. The final rule reflects substantial changes to the discussion draft and the proposed rule in response to public comments.

Federal acknowledgment establishes the U.S. Government as the trustee for Tribal lands and resources and makes Tribal members and governments eligible for federal budget assistance and program services. Since 1978, of the 566 federally recognized tribes, 17 have been recognized through the Part 83 process under Title 25 of the Code of Federal Regulations, Procedures for Establishing that an American Indian Group Exists as an Indian Tribe. The Department has denied acknowledgment to 34 other petitioning groups.

Though far more tribes have been recognized through Executive or Congressional action, the Part 83 process is an important mechanism because it allows deliberative consideration of petitions by a staff of federal experts in anthropology, genealogy and history and ultimately allows for a decision by the Assistant Secretary-Indian Affairs. When petitioning groups that meet the criteria are officially “acknowledged” as Indian tribes, the U.S. Government accepts trusteeship of Tribal lands and natural resources. Tribal governments and members then become eligible to receive federal health, education, housing and other program and technical assistance.

The final rule and other information is online

Treasury issues tax guidance on per cap payments

Guidance Provides Significant Clarity, Incorporates Feedback from Tribal Nations

By US Treasury Media Release

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Department of the Treasury and Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has issued interim guidance this week regarding per capita distributions made to members of Indian tribes from funds held in trust by the Secretary of the Interior.  In response to feedback from tribal nations, the guidance clarifies that, generally, these per capita payments will not be subject to federal income tax.

Assistant Secretary for Tax Policy Mark J. Mazur will be speaking about the per capita guidance, tax-exempt bond options available to tribes, and other tribal tax initiatives during the National Congress of American Indians 2014 Executive Council Winter Session tomorrow.

“Today’s notice provides uniform, clear guidance regarding the tax treatment of per capita distributions of tribal trust assets,” said Assistant Secretary Mazur.  “This announcement and our ongoing tribal consultation process underscore the Administration’s commitment to understanding and addressing the issues facing the Native American community.”

The Department of the Interior is responsible for holding in trust certain funds on behalf of federally recognized Indian tribes.  Under the Per Capita Act of 1983, tribes are authorized to make per capita distributions from these trust accounts directly to tribal members subject to the approval of the Department of Interior.  In September 2012, Treasury and the IRS released guidance on per capita distributions from specific settlements, and have since received requests to address the tax treatment of per capita payments more broadly.

While developing this guidance, Treasury convened listening sessions and other consultations to facilitate a government-to-government dialogue between the federal government and tribes, and to understand key tribal concerns.

Treasury and IRS are issuing this notice as interim guidance to allow Indian tribes time to review and provide feedback by September 17, 2014.  Based on these comments, we will consider revisions before issuing a final notice.

For the Per Capita Distributions notice, click here.

Everyone’s Problem: Secretary of the Interior holds discussion on the impacts of climate change on the Pacific Northwest

Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell (left) and UW Dean of the College of the Environment Dr. Lisa Graumlich (right) hold a round table discussion at the University of Washington in Seattle with researchers and other program managers to discuss the impacts of Climate Change in the Pacific Northwest. Andrew Gobin/Tulalip News

By Andrew Gobin, Tulalip News

Seattle – The United States Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, along with Dean of College of the Environment at University of Washington Dr. Lisa Graumlich, convened a meeting at the University of Washington (UW) in order to discuss climate change, the data we have already seen in the Pacific Northwest, and what the regional impacts are. Representatives from the United States Geological Survey (USGS), UW faculty, the National Parks Service, Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the North Cascades National Parks Complex, the Olympic National Park, and other organizations attended the February 4th meeting. Impacts on ecology, landscape, development and public planning were discussed, though for Native American Tribes, the implications are much more complex as they affect cultural identities. Although tribes’ interests are more deeply vested, collaboration was highlighted throughout the meeting as key to successfully combating climate change.

Dr. Gustavo Bisbal, Director of the USGS Northwest Climate Science Center, said, “{Tribes} have their finger on the pulse of the land. These communities don’t just worry about ‘oh well we can’t go snowboarding,’ or ‘I cannot go and water my carrots.’ There is a spiritual significance to the resources that they don’t see anymore. There is a danger of cultural erosion with things going away. ‘I can’t do this anymore. I cannot be…I cannot realize my tribal identity.’ That is huge, to understand the significance of how those resources are changing, and are really transforming cultures.”

For many years tribes, especially in Washington State, have led the charge in protecting natural resources. Stemming from the 1974 Boldt Decision, which protected tribal interests and rights to natural resources, tribal sovereignty was realized through the recognition of their authority to co-manage resources with state and federal entities. Today, although tribes remain at the forefront with their survival deeply vested in the preservation of natural resources, it is apparent that everyone has an interest in combating issues that come with climate change.

“I think one big lesson that nature, of course, taught us over time is there’s really no geographic or institution boundaries. When you look at the State of Washington, Department of Natural Resources owns the land, forest land, park land, tribal land, and they’re all impacted,” said Hedia Adelsman, policy analyst for the Department of Ecology and appointed proxy for the governor for the meeting. “Ultimately, how do we then work together to not have this fragmentation.”

These entities historically have worked individually, even in natural resource preservation efforts. DNR, for example, is currently developing a climate change adaptation plan, though it only affects DNR land. The boundaries on the land do nothing to contain environmental impacts. On Mount Rainier

Other entities get wrapped up in whether or not it is their responsibility to preserve natural resources or prepare for climate change.

“A climate catastrophe is not the time to have an identity crisis. From a National Parks Service perspective, I think there are still those many, many people within our population who think of national parks as zoos. Some of us realize the importance of national parks for the baseline information that they can provide regarding climate change. From a policy and legislative perspective, they look at specific species in parks, which a zoo-like mentality, as opposed to looking long range and thinking; well what if Roosevelt Elk actually move out of the park habitat, or what if they’re not doing so well. To what extreme would we go to maintain a population of Roosevelt Elk at the expense of keeping baseline data to inform climate change decisions,” said Sarah Creachbaum, Superintendent for the Olympic National Park.

Creachbaum demonstrated two roadblocks that need to change, one being the perspectives at the decision making level, and the second being the challenges in identity and questions of responsibility. The National Parks Service essentially is at the frontline, observing environmental changes on a daily basis. The potential data they stand to provide, in addition to what they do now, is overlooked because of these roadblocks. Creachbaum said they want to come to the table and be part of the team, but their significance has yet to be realized. That lack of vision in addition to oversight at the policy level creates a gap, consequentially hindering natural resource preservation.

Adelsman said, “We are just at the beginning of starting to look at it as a system. The part that I struggle the most with is we are recipient of the science, and we say we need to consider that in our planning policies, but what does that really mean?”

Climate change affects regions and regional systems beyond the natural environment, including the economy, public health, and population. For tribes, the effects will change tribal identity and culture if there are no longer traditional natural resources to have access to. At the end of the day, it is more than a tribal issue, more than a local or regional issue. In the Pacific Northwest, even speaking locally, climate change is an international challenge, as we share waters and mountains. Climate change impacts everyone and it will take a consorted, multi-national effort to plan for and prevent changes in the Pacific Northwest.


Andrew Gobin: 360-716-4188;

Statement by Billy Frank Jr. on selection of Sally Jewell as Interior Secretary

Source: Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission

“We are excited about President Obama’s selection of Sally Jewell for Secretary of the Interior,” says Chairman Billy Frank of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. “We think she’s a great choice.”

Jewell, the former chief executive officer for outdoor gear giant REI, grew up in Washington state and knows the issues important to Indian tribes, Frank said. “She’s one of us, and we couldn’t be more pleased that she will be leading the Department of Interior for the next four years,” he said.

Frank said that Jewell brings a strong blend of business sense and a natural resources conservation ethic to the agency. “A healthy environment and a healthy economy can go hand-in-hand,” Frank said. “We can have both, and I think Sally Jewell will help make that happen.”

Frank praised Jewell’s knowledge of tribes and tribal issues, and respect for tribal sovereignty and treaty rights. “We are facing big challenges such as achieving salmon recovery, protecting water quality and adapting to climate change,” Frank said. “Our cultures, economies and treaty rights depend on a healthy environment and healthy natural resources.”

Because the Department of Interior also includes the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Jewell’s understanding and respect for tribal governments are critical to a good working relationship between the tribes and the agency, he said.

“I believe Sally is the right person, in the right place, at the right time,” Frank said. “We look forward to working with her, and thank President Obama for his wise choice.”