BIA rewrites rules for extending services to non-tribal members

Posted: Thursday, January 11, 2001

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- The Bureau of Indian Affairs is blaming an ''inadvertent omission'' for causing it to issue regulations that would have denied some services to Alaska Natives who haven't enrolled in a tribe.

The bureau has proposed to quickly rewrite the rules so tribal membership isn't required for Alaska Natives.

The agency backpedaled after Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, wrote a letter objecting to the original rules.

Those rules, which became final Nov. 20, restrict eligibility for certain BIA financial assistance programs. That includes programs for physically or mentally impaired people, for guardians or foster parents of children who need help, for people affected by natural disasters and for people needing help to bury deceased family members.

Requiring Alaska Natives to be members of tribes before they could get such services would cut off thousands of people, Murkowski said.

Alaska has about 101,000 Native people, the U.S. Census Bureau said. Not all have enrolled in one of the 229 BIA-recognized tribes, however.

Calls by the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner to the BIA's Washington, D.C., office weren't immediately returned.

But a draft version of the bureau's proposed revision indicates the agency wants to offer services to all people who have at least one-fourth Native blood or who are considered Alaska Natives by a Native village or group. That basically reflects the criteria for receiving benefits under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971.

''By publishing this rule, the BIA is attempting to rectify the omission of services as quickly as possible,'' the agency's draft revision said.

The revised rules become effective Jan. 19, although comments will be taken until Feb. 19, the draft said.

The original rules had been published in the Federal Register and went through a public comment period before being adopted last fall, the bureau said.

''Thereafter, the BIA was notified of an inconsistency,'' the draft said. But Murkowski said the problem was pointed out in public testimony.

''While I was amazed that the agency proceeded with the regulations after being informed of their deficiencies during the public review process, I do welcome this decision to reverse course and restore needy Alaska Natives to the benefit rolls,'' Murkowski said in a news release.

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