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North Stonington - First Selectman Nicholas Mullane II is calling proposed changes in the federal government's recognition of Indian tribes "a major relaxing" of standards now in place.
Under the revisions, the U.S. Department of the Interior's Bureau of Indian Affairs would review a petitioning tribe's "community and political authority" beginning with the year 1934 "and eliminate the requirement that an external entity identify the group as Indian since 1900," the BIA said in a June 21 news release.
"We are starting with an open mind and no fixed agenda, and we're looking forward to getting input from all stakeholders before we move forward ...," said Kevin Washburn, the department's assistant secretary for Indian Affairs.
If adopted, the changes could have implications for the Eastern Pequot Tribe of North Stonington as well as other tribes in Connecticut and throughout New England, according to Mullane, who has long had a keen interest in the process.
"For the last two or three years, we have submitted FOI (freedom-of-information) requests for what's going on with federal recognition, and have received nothing," he said last week. "Now, we know."
The proposed revision regarding a petitioning tribe's continuity as a unit begins on the first page of the BIA's preliminary draft of the changes. It defines "continuously" or "continuous" as "extending from 1934 to the present substantially without interruption," replacing the phrase, "extending from first sustained contact with non-Indians throughout the group's history."
Mullane said the change constitutes "a dilution, a watering down" of existing regulations.
"Tribes won't have to be historical tribes anymore," he said. "There are tribes that have maintained their continuity from Day One, that have acted as a tribe, with a chief, a structure, members; now the BIA's saying they don't need that.
"There just won't be any stringent requirements anymore."
In addition to the Eastern Pequots, Mullane suggested, Connecticut's Schaghticoke and Golden Hill Paugussett tribes could benefit from the revisions. Though recognized by the state, all three tribes have failed to gain the federal recognition that could entitle them to certain rights and privileges, including federal funds.
Federally recognized tribes are eligible to have the U.S. government take land into trust for them, a process that exempts the land from local jurisdiction. For the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes, federal recognition was a precursor to their development of casinos.
The Eastern Pequots and the Schaghticokes won federal recognition in preliminary BIA decisions that were subsequently reversed.
Mullane said North Stonington will oppose the revisions as best it can. though he said he doubts he'll be able to attend any in a series of public meetings the Department of the Interior will conduct over the next couple of months. The nearest meeting is July 31 in Maine. The department is also accepting written comment until Aug. 16.
"The first thing we have to do is find a bunch of money, because it won't be cheap," Mullane said of efforts to fight the proposed changes.
He said North Stonington spent $750,000 in legal fees opposing the Eastern Pequots' bid for federal recognition, and that the towns of Ledyard and Preston contributed a "couple hundred thousand dollars." Before that, he said, the three towns combined to spend $1.2 million to fight the Mashantuckets' attempt to annex land adjacent to their reservation.
Mullane said he has alerted Ledyard Mayor John Rodolico and U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, to the BIA's plan and will seek their support and the support of others in opposing it.
"We have to address it as soon as possible," he said.