Federal tribe recognition debated

Connecticut leaders, including Gov. Dannel Malloy, are opposing a federal proposal that would streamline the process of three American Indian tribes gaining federal recognition, citing economic consequences.

The proposal, announced last year by Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Kevin Washburn, would allow certain tribes to reapply for federal recognition under newer guidelines to “improve timeliness and efficiency” of the application process.

Under the existing regulations, only tribes who could prove continuous political and social organization since the 1600s would qualify for federal recognition. The new regulations, if implemented, would expedite the recognition process for tribes who already possess state recognition and state-allotted land.

Of the over 350 Indian groups that have petitioned for federal recognition in the country, only 10 have state-recognized reservations. Three of these are located in Connecticut.

All three have been rejected by the Bureau of Indian Affairs under its current guidelines for recognition: the Schaghticoke of Kent, the Eastern Pequot of North Stonington and the Paugussett of Colchester and Trumbull.

For these tribes, federal recognition represents an opportunity to re-establish themselves as sovereign nations and gain access to federal resources for healthcare and economic development grants to which tribes are entitled.

Trudie Lamb Richmond, the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation’s anthropologist, said that under the current system of state recognition, her people are treated like “second-class citizens.”

“Recognition opens doors in the sense that it would enable us to get federal funding and assistance,” Richmond said. “We need to be able to expand the reservation, perhaps recuperate some of the land we lost so more tribal members move back on the reservation and we can set up the kind of economic development we need to be self-sufficient.”

The Schaghticoke reservation, which the Colony of Connecticut established in 1736, is among the oldest in the nation. Since then, settler encroachment has reduced the reservation from its original size of 3,000 acres to its present size of 400 acres, 385 of which are mountainous, Richmond said.

Despite the longevity of their existence, the Bureau of Indian affairs rejected the Schaghticokes, along with the Eastern Pequots and the Paugussetts, in 2005 under the current federal recognition guidelines, which require tribes to demonstrate that they have been a continuous political and social community since “first contact.”

The Bureau of Indian Affairs granted acknowledgement to the Eastern Pequots and the Schaghticokes in 2002 by arguing that the state’s maintenance of reservations meant they constituted a political and social community, but the state reversed the decision in 2005 by appealing to the Interior Board of Indian Appeals.

Gov. Malloy, who wrote a letter to the president arguing that the new proposal holds outstanding negative consequences for Connecticut, has received support from Attorney General George Jepsen and the state’s Congressional delegation.

“For Connecticut, the consequences would be devastating,” Malloy wrote. “The petitioning groups have filed or threatened land claims to vast areas of fully developed land in Connecticut. Such claims can cloud the title to real property in the claimed area, causing significant economic hardship to Connecticut residents.”

Malloy added that federal recognition for the three tribes would mean “extraordinary new demands” on the state’s infrastructure.

Jeffrey Sienkiewicz, the Kent town attorney who has been fighting land claims brought forth by the Schaghticoke tribe, said he believes the Schaghticokes have no legal basis for federal recognition.

“The regulations as proposed have departed from all of the history of what constitutes an Indian tribe,” he said. “All the judicial precedent and administrative precedent was thrown out the window. They’re going to create tribes where none exists just because it’s a bunch of people with Indian descent.”

Local tribal leaders, though, argue that the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ old system for federal acknowledgement was unfair and holds that recognition will not negatively impact the state’s economy. Richmond said proving continuous political authority is difficult because in the period between 1800 and 1875, economic desperation forced many of the men from the tribe to join the military or move to towns to find work.

Anya Montiel GRD’18, a doctoral student in American Studies at Yale, said that the current criteria the Bureau of Indian Affairs has in place is “very slanted against East Coast tribes,” because they do not take into account centuries of contact and political dealings with other European colonial forces — in this case the English.

She said a re-examination of these criteria would benefit peoples who are struggling to regain their lands and maintain their cultures.

For Jim Rawlings, president of the Connecticut Native American Intertribal Urban Council and a Seaconke Wampanoag elder, the controversy demonstrates ongoing violations of Native sovereignty and treaty rights that predate the United States.

“Why is it that our future is in the hands of third parties and local governance? Many tribes here have had to adapt and move around to survive because of the warfare the colonists waged,” he said. “It should be us, not them, to decide who is recognized. We have our own definitions.”

An expedited recognition process, he said, would be very helpful, as some tribes have had to litigate for as long as 30 years for their recognition.

Opponents of the proposal worry that the federal government’s recognition of these three tribes might grant them the legal grounds to open casinos, which could impact agreements between the state government and Connecticut’s two other federally recognized tribes, the Mohegans and the Mashantucket Pequots.

“The state would likely be required to renegotiate the established compacts with the state’s two federally recognized tribes should additional gambling be established, including new casinos,” said Jacklyn Falkowski, spokesperson for the Connecticut Attorney General.

There are currently 566 federally recognized tribes in the United States.

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