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Proposed changes in the rules for U.S. recognition of Indian tribes contain a provision that could keep the Eastern Pequots from renewing their pursuit of the coveted status.
Federal recognition could entitle them to federal aid and the right to open a casino.
Under the provision, parties to a successful appeal of a tribe's recognition would have to consent to the tribe's re-applying under the new rules.
The Easterns won recognition in 2002, only to have it withdrawn in 2005 after the state and the towns of North Stonington, Ledyard and Preston objected, as they would likely do again, if given the chance. Representatives of those same parties said Thursday the provision appeared to address some of their concerns about the proposed rules, which the Department of the Interior released earlier in the day.
They also said the revisions, first presented in draft form last year, continued to raise questions.
"There are still some very significant gaps that need to be filled," said U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. "The Obama administration has made some effort to address our concerns, and I'm hoping that they'll continue to do so."
Attempts to reach the Easterns' tribal chairman were unsuccessful.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, state Attorney General George Jepsen and members of the state's congressional delegation, all of whom took exception to the draft form of the revisions, released a joint statement.
"We appreciate that the Obama Administration listened to the concerns raised by Connecticut officials over the past nine months, and its latest revisions are a step in the right direction," they said. "However, we believe additional changes and clarifications are necessary to ensure that Connecticut's interests are protected, and we will continue to work for their inclusion."
A Washington, D.C.-based attorney for the three towns said the proposed changes fail to adequately define which parties would have to consent to a tribe's re-petitioning.
"What is the ability of new petitioning groups to come forward and start the process all over again?" Don Baur, of the law firm Perkins Coie, said. "That's significant, because the new criteria (for recognition) are much more lenient."
Over the years, several tribal groups in Connecticut have filed notice of their intention to seek federal recognition, among them the Southern Pequot Tribe of Waterford and the Ledyard-based Poquonnock Pequot Tribe.
Federal recognition, or acknowledgment, establishes the U.S. government as the trustee for tribal lands and makes tribal members and governments eligible for federal budget assistance and services. Two of Connecticut's five state-recognized tribes - the Mashantucket Pequots and the Mohegans - have gained federal recognition, a precursor to their opening Foxwoods Resort Casino and Mohegan Sun, respectively.
The other three state-recognized tribes - the Easterns, the Kent-based Schaghticokes and the Golden Hill Paugussetts of Trumbull and Colchester - expected to benefit from the Interior Department's overhaul of the recognition process.
The department's proposed changes seek to streamline regulations adopted in 1978 and updated 20 years ago.
A key revision would require a petitioning tribe to show that it has existed as a community and as a political entity since 1934 rather than from as early as 1789, when the U.S. Constitution was adopted. Another change would eliminate the need for a tribe to demonstrate that third parties had identified it as a tribe since 1900.
The regulations would require tribes to provide "a brief narrative with evidence of the group's existence at some point during historical times."
Nicholas Mullane II, North Stonington's first selectman, said he was pleased with the provision limiting a tribe's ability to re-apply for recognition. "That's one plus," he said. "But we're not out of the woods yet."
He noted that another provision calls for the elimination of the Interior Board of Indian Appeals, the body that reversed the Bureau of Indian Affairs' recognitions of the Easterns and the Schaghticokes.
Under the new rules, the Interior Department's assistant secretary for Indian affairs, a post currently held by Kevin Washburn, would issue final determinations regarding recognition. Challenges would have to be pursued in federal court.
Robert Congdon, the Preston first selectman, said he was concerned that any dilution of the standards for recognition would have a dramatic effect on the state.
"The regulations were more than adequate as they were previously," he said. "We went through the appeals process with the Easterns and the Schaghticokes. There should be a reasonable end to it."
If the Easterns gained recognition, he said, they could pursue land claims in Preston "or any other town," removing that land from local tax rolls. There's also the prospect of "two or three" more casinos in the state, if recognition standards are relaxed, he said.
"If a tribe didn't come into existence until 1934, I don't believe it deserves recognition," he said.