Govt. watchdog questions Calif. tribe's recognition, says it found no process for decision

SAN FRANCISCO – A government watchdog has criticized an official’s decision to grant a Central California American Indian tribe federal recognition, which gave it the right to federal benefits and a reservation where it could pursue a casino.

The U.S. Department of Interior’s Office of Inspector General said in a report released Tuesday that it found no discernible process followed by then-Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Larry Echo Hawk to recognize the Tejon Indian Tribe in 2011 over at least one other group that had submitted a similar application.

The tribe’s headquarters are near Bakersfield. Tribal chairwoman Kathy Morgan initially said she had not yet seen the report. She did not immediately respond to a subsequent message seeking comment.

The Office of Inspector General forwarded its findings to the Interior secretary for “any action deemed appropriate.”

According to the report, Echo Hawk told the Office of Inspector General that the tribe previously had been recognized by the U.S. government, but did not appear on a list of federally recognized tribes because of an administrative error.

Echo Hawk said he had the legal authority to reaffirm the tribe and was not required to go through the official administrative process for recognition.

“When asked about the process he followed or criteria he considered in making the Tejon decision, Echo Hawk said he did not get deeply involved in the details of the decision,” the report said.

His chief of staff, Paul Tsosie, however, said officials had reviewed documents and determined there had been a negotiated treaty that established a federal relationship with the tribe, the report said.

Echo Hawk said he was aware of one other tribe with a request similar to Tejon’s and chose Tejon because the tribe had “pressed their issue forward.”

According to the report, Tsosie made similar comments, acknowledging he had been influenced by the number of telephone calls he received from members of the tribe and saying: “This was one of the tribes that was calling me off the hook. So I was, like, saying: ‘Just give them an answer.'”

The roughly 400-member Tejon tribe had applied for reaffirmation with help from Cannery Row Casino resorts of Las Vegas, which provided money the tribe used to hire a legal representative to assist with the process, according to the report. The federal government’s list of recognized tribes stands at more than 550 tribes.

The report also accused Echo Hawk of failing to consult with other federal officials, leaving Indian groups with historical, genealogical, and ancestral claims to the original Tejon Indians out of the process and creating budgeting difficulties in meeting the required services for the Tejon.

Echo Hawk resigned from the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs last year.

A spokeswoman for the agency did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.