Native Village 
Youth and Education News

September 2013

US Overhauls Process for Recognizing Indian Tribes
Condensed by Native Village

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Connecticut: His tribe once controlled huge swaths of land in New York and Connecticut. Today, the shrunken reservation presided over by Alan Russell hosts little more than four run-down homes and a pair of rattlesnake dens.

The Schaghticoke Indian Tribe believes its fortunes may soon be improving. The U.S. Department of Interior is overhauling its rules for recognizing American Indian tribes, and a nod from the federal government appears within reach. This would bolster his tribe's claims to surrounding land and open the door to a tribal-owned casino.

"It's the future generations we're fighting for," Russell said.

The rules being floated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs are intended to streamline the approval process. Some, however see these changes as "lowering the bar." One such rule would require tribes to prove political continuity since 1934 instead of "first contact" with European settlers.

The new rules were proposed in June by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Across the country, many host communities and currently recognized tribes fear the upheaval.

President Obama wants to improve the current recognition process. It's been criticized as slow, inconsistent and susceptible to political influence.

Federal recognition status is coveted. It brings health and education benefits to tribal members along with land protections and opportunities for commercial development.

For years tribes have pushed Congress or the Interior Department to revise the process. Federal recognition has been granted to only 566 tribes.

"I am glad that the Department is proposing to keep its promise to fix a system that has been broken for years, leaving behind generations of abuse, waste, and broken dreams," wrote Cedric Cromwell, chairman of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe in Massachusetts. The Mashpee were recognized in 2007.

The new rules might cause tensions.  Tribes along the Columbia River in Washington state, for instance, will be wary of a new tribe at the river's mouth gaining recognition and cutting into their take of salmon. Tribes elsewhere fear encroachment on casino gaming markets.

"This is a big issue throughout the whole country," said Richard Monette, law professor and expert on American Indian tribes at the University of Wisconsin.

The Muckleshoot Indian Tribe in Washington state argues the new rules would lower the threshold for recognition. Tribal chair Virginia Cross believes this could lead to acknowledgment of groups of descendants who "have neither a history of self-government, nor a clear sense of identity."

In Connecticut, recognition means an entry into lucrative gaming markets. Russell, 67, said his 100-member tribe wants its own casino. Assuming it wins recognition, they might team up with one of the state's bigger cities and build a casino along a highway.

Another tribal faction, the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation, hopes the new rules breathe life into their own bid for recognition. The STN won recognition in 2004, but that decision was reversed after state officials argued the tribe lacked evidence related to its historical continuity.

U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal said Connecticut's congressional delegation is united against any changes that would seriously affect several towns and the entire state.

"Our hope is we can dissuade officials from proceeding with a regulatory step that would be very misguided because it would essentially eviscerate and eliminate key criteria," Blumenthal said.

Supporters of the rule change say it helps to remove unfair burdens. Judith Shapiro is an attorney who has worked with several tribes on recognition bids. She said some tribes failed because records were lost or burned over hundreds of years. Also, any tribes still together by 1934 had overcome histories of mistreatment and pressure to blend in with mainstream society.

Nicholas Mullane from North Stonington, Conn., questions if a tribe whose members have played in the local little league and joined local churches should have the same standing as others. He plans to fight a recognition bid by the Eastern Pequots, who have a small state-issued reservation in town.

"It's not like somebody in the West where you have a huge reservation and a government and they meet regularly," Mullane said.

The Schaghticoke reservation, which dates to the mid-1700s, has been carved up to 1/10 of its original size. As recently as 1960, Russell said, the town fire department burned down reservation homes when tribal members died to prevent others from occupying them.

When Russell's own house burned down in 1998, however, the townspeople across the Housatonic River helped him to rebuild. Russell, who grew up hunting and fishing on the reservation, said if the tribe wins recognition it can work something out with the town on the land claims.

"That's what I want them to understand," he said. "We're not the enemy."

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