Former BIA Chief Defends Decisions to Recognize Several Tribes

In the face of congressional calls for reform and investigations, the former director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs defends his decisions to give tribal status to several groups.

In the Clinton administration's waning days, Kevin Gover and his deputy, Michael Anderson, issued a series of tribal recognition decisions that critics say were an abuse of the process and benefitted American Indian gambling interests.

In two cases Gover and Anderson reversed BIA staff findings — Gover by granting tribal status to the Chinook tribe in Washington state, and Anderson by issuing a proposed finding in favor of the Nipmuc tribe in Massachusetts.

Gover, who practiced law for 11 years in New Mexico, insists he did nothing wrong. Indeed, the BIA chief is given the authority to make such decisions, and Gover says in each case they were in the tribe's best interest.

The attacks, he said, are part of an effort to discredit him and, indirectly, erode support for Indian gambling.

"This is part of the game, and that's too bad. But what's not OK is attacking the tribes because it endangers their efforts to at long last get justice, particularly in the case of the Chinooks," he said.

The Chinooks welcomed Lewis and Clark to the Northwest, but BIA staff said they couldn't show the tribe existed in the early 1900s. Gover drew on two laws passed by Congress in 1912 and 1925 relating to the Chinooks to proof they existed and then opted to "give them a break" in granting tribal status.

All of the decisions made by Gover and Anderson are under review. The Bush administration is reviewing Anderson's decision on the Nipmuc and another tribe as part of a broad review of orders issued in the last days of the Clinton administration.

Interior Secretary Gale Norton allowed Gover's decision on the Chinook to stand, but it has been appealed by the neighboring Quinault tribe and assigned to the Board of Indian Appeals.

Anderson said the decisions, which he predicts will be upheld, were based on the facts after years in the process and "there was no gaming consideration whatsoever."

Members of Congress had complained for months the tribal recognition process was broken. In September, eight Republican Representatives asked the General Accounting Office to investigate the process.

The decisions by Gover and Anderson have fueled the fire.

"Under the Clinton administration, the process of recognition has become very corrupt," said Rep. Chris Shays, R-Conn. "It was based on how much you contribute to the president to Mrs. Clinton or to the Democratic party."

Gover bristles at Shays' claims and says he never knew who had given money to the Clintons when he was making decisions

"Frankly, I resent the allegation and demand if there's proof of that it be brought forward," Gover said.

The claims of corruption, he says, are designed to intimidate the new BIA chief.

Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., had asked Attorney General John Ashcroft to investigate and advised Norton and President Bush to pick a replacement for Gover from a Western tribe with no connection to gambling.

Last week, Bush announced he would nominate Neal McCaleb, a Chickasaw Indian from Oklahoma who was the state's secretary of transportation, to the post. McCaleb is unknown in Indian gambling circles.