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Editorial . . .

Overdue Recognition: Occaneechi Should Be Recognized As Tribe

Enough stonewalling. The N.C. Commission of Indian Affairs should recognize the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi nation as a tribe.

It is unknown why the commission is choosing to ignore the tribe's evidence and the further evidence compiled by Administrative Law Judge Delores O. Smith. But to do so, as the commission is, is woefully unfair to the Occaneechi.

The commission should have capitulated on this matter years ago. Instead, the panel has again delayed the process by appealing to the state Supreme Court. And now it really should be asked whether the commission should be the arbiter of tribal recognition.

Under the current system, the Special Committee on Recognition of the Indian Affairs Commission, which is made up of representatives of other North Carolina tribes, decides on petitions for tribal status.

Being recognized as a tribe would make the Occaneechi eligible for state and federal programs, such as education and health-care benefits. For every additional tribe that is recognized, this could mean the prior tribes get less money, unless more money is allocated for American Indians - certainly nothing to bank on. Fewer tribes means the money is more concentrated.

This is a conflict of interest. But it is also the system as it stands now, so it has to be dealt with - in the courts, if need be, as has been the Occaneechi's only recourse.

The N.C. Supreme Court could end this decade-long saga quickly in the coming months by simply refusing to hear the case. This would leave in place a unanimous appeals court ruling granting the Occaneechi tribal status, based on Smith's previous ruling.

The commission's lawyer, N.C. Assistant Attorney General David Steinbock, said the Supreme Court should judge the case based on merit, not on the "technicality" the appeals court ruled on.

According to the appeals court, the commission made its decision on the administrative law judge's ruling too late.

"The decision was made on the Administrative Legal Act, and I hope they'll hear the whole case and not just the one issue," Steinbock said of the Supreme Court. Why should the Supreme Court? According to the appeals court, the commission violated a law, something the assistant attorney general is supposed to uphold. This law is in place because too often in the past delays have been used to quash legal supplication.

"When you have your rights delayed, they are denied," said Al McSurley, the Occaneechi's attorney.

It seems that the law against such delays was enacted to keep governmental bodies from using their power indiscriminately - as seems to be happening here.

(From The Chapel Hill Herald Oct. 4, 2001)


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