North Stonington first selectman hails congressional review of federal recognition process
North Stonington — First Selectman Nicholas Mullane II says a congressional review of the federal recognition of Indian tribes is long overdue.
He may now get his wish.
"This has been bubbling for a long time," Mullane said Monday of a request by members of Congress that the U.S. Department of the Interior refrain from adopting proposed changes in the federal recognition process.
"I don't think anyone really understands the magnitude of the new regulations. It's time someone said, 'Let's look at the big picture,'" he said. "We've been wanting one of these (congressional reviews) for a long time."
On Thursday, Reps. Joe Courtney and Elizabeth Esty, Connecticut Democrats, joined Rep. Rob Bishop, a Utah Republican who chairs the House Committee on Natural Resources; Rep. Don Young, an Alaska Republican who chairs the committee's Subcommittee on Indian, Insular, and Alaska Native Affairs; and Rep. Mike Thompson, a California Democrat, in seeking a meeting with Interior Secretary Sally Jewell "to discuss how we will coordinate with the Department as we undertake this Congressional oversight."
In a letter to Jewell, the representatives warn that the proposed changes, first revealed in 2013, fail to address existing issues "and could create new problems that lead to unintended and unjustifiable outcomes."
The Interior Department's Bureau of Indian Affairs is expected to rule on the changes within the next couple of months.
State and local officials in Connecticut have objected to the changes because they believe they amount to a watering down of recognition standards and could lead to federal recognition of several state tribes, including the Eastern Pequots of North Stonington.
Mullane said as many as six tribal groups in the state could qualify for recognition if the changes are adopted. Federal recognition can entitle a tribe 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.
"Before making any changes, the federal government must understand the impacts the proposed changes will have on tribal and non-tribal communities to ensure that any rules the Department ultimately adopts do not result in flawed decisions," the congressional members said in their letter. "Such impacts may include the reduction of existing tribal shares of discretionary funding if deficit reduction rules prevent budget increases necessary to meet new tribes' service needs."
"They can't properly finance the tribal aid they're committed to now," Mullane said of the BIA. "They've never budgeted what they should have for the staff they need."
Mullane believes that tribes seeking federal recognition should have to meet seven existing criteria, including that tribal members have comprised a distinct community from historical times to the present. Under the proposed rules changes, a tribe would only have to demonstrate it has maintained a distinct community since 1934.
The Easterns, Mullane said, "cannot pass the tests. It should be cut and dried. You should stick to the seven criteria, and if a group can't meet them, it's over."