Bill would give Congress sole authority to recognize tribes
A congressional subcommittee heard testimony last week on a bill providing that Indian tribes only be recognized by an act of Congress rather than by the executive branch of the U.S. government.
The bill would not enable tribes that have been denied recognition in the past to re-petition, a provision that would appear to apply to the Eastern Pequot Tribe of North Stonington.
Under the bill, introduced by Rep. Rob Bishop, a Utah Republican, an Indian group seeking recognition would still have to file an application with the Department of the Interior’s assistant secretary for Indian affairs, as is currently the case.
The assistant secretary would review the tribe’s petition and report to the House of Representatives’ Committee on Natural Resources and the Senate’s Committee on Indian Affairs.
Federal recognition, or acknowledgment, could only be granted by Congress.
Such status is important to tribes because it can entitle them to sovereign status and federal aid for housing, education and health care. It can also enable a tribe to operate a casino on reservation land.
Kevin Washburn, the assistant secretary for Indian Affairs, objected to the bill Wednesday while testifying before the House committee’s Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs.
Washburn, who headed the Obama administration’s recently completed overhaul of the recognition process, said he feared the bill, if approved, would politicize the recognition of Indian tribes.
He said the executive branch has long had a role in recognizing tribes, with only “a small minority” of tribes recognized by acts of Congress. The Mashantucket Pequot Tribe, which owns Foxwoods Resort Casino, is one of them.
The assistant secretary also said the bill could raise questions about the legitimacy of more than 200 tribes in Alaska and more than a dozen in California that have been recognized by his agency.
Nationally, there are 566 federally recognized tribes. The decision recognizing a 567th, the Pamunkey Indian Tribe of Virginia, is being appealed.
One subcommittee member, Rep. Paul Gosar, an Arizona Republican, said Washburn's agency had acted to “dramatically water down” the standards for recognition and questioned whether the new rules would survive scrutiny.
Connecticut officials played a major role in shaping the rules by urging removal of a provision that would have allowed tribes that had been denied recognition in the past to reapply under new regulations that are less stringent than those in place for decades.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, members of the state’s congressional delegation and local officials believed three Connecticut tribes that had tried and failed to win recognition — the Easterns, the Schaghticokes and the Golden Hill Paugussetts — would likely have been successful if given “another bite of the apple.”
Eastern tribal officials have vowed to keep up the tribe’s fight for recognition.
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