BIA tribal recognition change seen as threat to local towns

BIA tribal recognition change seen as threat to local towns

The Westerly Sun

STONINGTON — The Board of Selectmen will consider whether or not to join neighboring North Stonington in opposing new proposed federal rules for tribal recognition.

North Stonington First Selectman Nicholas H. Mullane II appeared before the Stonington selectmen Wednesday night to ask for their support in opposing the new rules proposed by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs. Mullane, along with other town and state officials in Connecticut, said he believes the proposed rules are too lax and will unfairly provide federal recognition to tribes that previously didn’t meet the criteria.

“This subject is uncomfortable to a lot of people because they feel it’s anti-Indian,” Mullane said. “It is not anti-Indian. It has to do with whether or not the groups are or are not deserving of being recognized as a tribe.”

Once a tribe has federal recognition, it is eligible for federal financial benefits, it can bring land claims against property owners for land it believes was taken from it, and it has the right to open a casino.

There are three tribes in Connecticut that have been previously denied federal recognition. They are the Eastern Pequots of North Stonington, the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation in Kent, and the Golden Hill Paugussetts in Colchester and Trumbull. The Eastern Pequot tribe’s reservation is just north of Stonington, Mullane told the selectmen, and it’s possible that after receiving federal recognition the tribe could make land claims in Stonington.

According to a report issued by Connecticut Attorney General George C. Jepsen, the proposed changes were issued on May 22 by Kevin Washburn, assistant secretary for Indian affairs for the U.S. Department of the Interior. If approved, the new rules would replace regulations that have been in place since 1978.

Several of the proposed changes “appear inconsistent with long-established acknowledgment precedent and are not justified by the reasoning the BIA offers for them,” Jepsen wrote in his report. Four of the changes are the most problematic, he noted. They are the ability to reapply for recognition after being rejected; allowing factions of a previously denied tribe to apply for recognition; substituting the existence of a state-sanctioned reservation for community and political authority requirements; and requiring that tribes only date back to 1934 while allowing 20-year gaps in evidence.

Of the three Connecticut tribes that have been denied federal recognition, the Eastern Pequots and the Schaghticokes were initially approved for recognition but the decision was then overturned. The Golden Hill Paugussett tribe was flatly denied.

Tribes seeking federal recognition now have to prove that they have existed as a community and have a political structure. The new rules would relax that requirement if the tribe has a state reservation. Just because the state has maintained reservations for the Eastern Pequots and the Schaghticokes since before 1934, Jepsen argued, doesn’t mean the tribe interacted as a community or had a political authority.

The rules now in place require tribes to have community continuity since the first contact with Europeans, but the proposed changes move that date up to 1934. Evidence gaps of 20 years would be allowed, whereas now evidence of a community must be continuous.

“The issue tonight is, if you can’t qualify, like they did not before, you change the rules,” Mullane told the Stonington selectmen.

The proposed changes allow too much room for discretion, Mullane said, and do not allow for appeals. In addition to the three tribes that could reapply for recognition, there are several other tribes in Connecticut, including one in Stonington, that could benefit from these changes, he noted. That could mean increased land claims and casinos statewide. Local tribes could claim land around Exit 92 of Interstate 95, he added, which is where both Stonington and North Stonington want to attract new businesses. That land could be taken off the tax rolls and developed by the tribes, and while the towns would have to provide services to the properties, they could not collect taxes.

The last time the Eastern Pequots pursued federal recognition, Mullane said they planned to file claims for 3,000 acres in North Stonington, which would have taken $25 million off the town’s tax base.

Mullane provided the selectmen with letters showing widespread opposition to the change.

One was a February letter to President Obama from Gov. Dannel P. Malloy opposing the changes, which were then in the discussion stage.

“The draft, as proposed, would have a unique and devastating impact in Connecticut,” Malloy wrote.

Mullane also provided an August letter to Washburn opposing the changes, which was signed by Connecticut’s congressional delegation.

The next letter, dated 30 June, was to the Department of the Interior from the leaders of North Stonington, Ledyard, Preston, Cornwall and Roxbury requesting an extension of the comment period for the proposal.

Lastly, he offered a July 7 letter to the Office of Management and Budget also requesting additional time to file “comments on the paperwork burdens imposed upon us by the Department of the Interior’s” proposed changes. The letter hasn’t yet been mailed, and Mullane said he hoped Stonington would add its name along with the other five towns.

First Selectman Edward Haberek Jr. and Selectman George Crouse said they wanted time to read all of the materials and discuss the matter at the next Board of Selectmen meeting. They said they also wanted to include Selectwoman Glee McAnanly, who was absent.

Mullane replied that this letter would be sent before the next meeting, but there would be other letters in the future that Stonington could support if the selectmen wanted.

North Stonington has spent about $900,000 fighting recognition since the 1990s, Mullane said, but he was not asking for money, only support.

“I really think Stonington ought to get involved,” Mullane said. “We really don’t need any more casinos.”

After the meeting, Mullane said he planned to approach other southeastern Connecticut towns for support, but declined to name them. Stonington was the first. He will not be asking for support from any Rhode Island towns, he said.


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