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BIA rule changes are threat to North Stonington

NORTH STONINGTON — First Selectman Nicholas Mullane says he believes that proposed new rules for Indian tribal recognition pose one of the most important problems the town is facing. He has spent the last few years quietly defending the town’s interests and says that North Stonington stands to lose millions of dollars if the regulations are changed.

Last July, the Bureau of Indian Affairs proposed changes to the way it would recognize American Indian tribes. The move was meant to streamline and simplify the process. In doing so, the BIA changed some of the qualifications, thereby making it easier for some tribes to receive recognition even though they had been dened in the past.

“It is very concerning and we are still trying to fight it,” Mullane said at Tuesday’s Board of Selectmen meeting.

The changes were published for public comment in July and the bureau has spent the last six months reviewing the input. A final decision is expected within the next 30 days. Once it is made and published in the Federal Register, the regulations are expected to become effective in 90 days, potentially as soon as this July.

Locally, the towns with the most at stake are North Stonington, Preston and Ledyard. The Eastern Pequots were denied recognition in 2005 but would likely reapply and qualify should the regulations change. In Connecticut, tribes such as the Schaghticokes of Kent and the Golden Hill Paugussetts of Trumbull and Colchester would find themselves in the same position.

“They would end up in an administrative review and would probably be recognized, and at the present time there are no appeal periods. That could be a problem,” Mullane said. “It means that by 2015 there could be two or three more tribes in the state.”

On the other hand, the lack of an appeal process, Mullane believes, is an omission that could also work out in the town’s favor, depending on the outcome.

“If there was a group that was recognized, that would mean the taking of land into trust and a loss of tax base,” Mullane said. He also stated that according to previous discussions, the Eastern Pequots had their eye on 3,000 acres of property worth about $25 million. “That’s a considerable amount of money” that could be eliminated from the tax base, he said.

According to Mullane, the BIA does not have congressional approval to recognize tribes or take land into trust, making the legal battle even more complex. Should the regulations pass and a tribe be recognized, the town would be left with no alternative but to take the bureau to court, hoping for an immediate stay. If it is not granted the town runs the risk of going through a lengthy battle while the tribe moves forward, perhaps with irreversible effects.

The changes make recognition easier because it requires that descendants must have lived on a state reservation since 1934. Currently, a tribe must also have a distinct community and political identity since “historic times.” The Eastern Pequots and Schaghticokes were denied recognition in the past based on the current standards.

Mullane has applauded state officials for opposing the regulations and submitting written objections to the bureau. Those officials include Gov. Dannel P. Malloy; Attorney General George Jepson; the state’s entire congressional delegation; and government officials representing 16 towns.

Of the 13 comments received by the bureau from federal, state and local officials from across the country, nine were from Connecticut.

Other towns commenting against the changes were Kent, Ashford, Brooklyn, Canterbury, Chaplin, Eastford, Hampton, Killingly, Plainfield, Pomfret, Putnam, Scotland, Sterling, Thompson, Union, and Woodstock.

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