State delegation opposes tribal recognition changes

Hartford — Proposed rule changes that American Indian groups say could help bring more casinos to Connecticut are coming under criticism from the state's congressional delegation, which argues that the U.S. Interior Department is watering down the criteria for granting federal recognition to tribes.

In a letter sent to the department's Bureau of Indian Affairs, the state's two senators and five House representatives wrote that the proposed changes would significantly affect state residents. The governor and local leaders in towns that host state reservations are also opposing the proposals, which could renew long-simmering battles over land claims by making it easier for local tribes to win acknowledgment.

The delegation argues Connecticut appears to be singled out, citing a proposal to give Indian groups a pass on other requirements for recognition as long as some descendants have lived on a state reservation since 1934.

"Research from the Connecticut Attorney General's office indicates that only Connecticut has had state reservation lands in existence since 1934," the federal lawmakers said in their letter Wednesday.

A draft proposal of new rules for recognition was unveiled in June by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which has faced criticism for years that its process is slow and inconsistent. Among other changes is a suggestion to require that tribes demonstrate continuity only since 1934. Kevin Washburn, an assistant Interior secretary for Indian affairs, said earlier this summer the goal is to ensure the process is fair, efficient and transparent.

Connecticut has two federally recognized tribes, the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation and the Mohegan Tribe, which own the country's two largest Indian-owned casinos in the Foxwoods Resort Casino and Mohegan Sun.

If approved, the changes could benefit three other Connecticut tribes — the Schaghticokes of Kent, the Golden Hill Paugussetts of Trumbull and Colchester and the Eastern Pequots of North Stonington. Federal acknowledgment can bolster a tribe's claims to surrounding land, eliminate regulatory barriers to commercial development and bring increased health and education benefits to members.

But Samuel Dixon, the New Haven-based leader of a group that has petitioned for recognition as the True Golden Hill Paugussett Tribal Nation, said acknowledgment would bring no greater prize than a way into the gambling industry.

"Federal recognition grants you casino status. I don't know that they offer much else," said Dixon, a Yale-educated lawyer.

Alan Russell, leader of one of two rival Schaghticoke factions bidding for recognition, said his tribe also hopes to pursue a casino.

"I'm just one person," he said. "That's what the tribe wants."

In the delegation's letter, the lawmakers argued the proposed changes would effectively give tribes whose bids for recognition have failed in the past another opportunity at acknowledgment, and they ask the Bureau of Indian Affairs to scrap the plan.

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