Mullane, Blumenthal hopeful proposed tribal recognition rule changes will get a "fair look"
North Stonington First Selectman Nick Mullane and U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal said last week that an April 22 hearing in Washington about proposed federal tribal recognition rule changes seems to have gone in their favor.
It's been just less than two years since the two men, among others, learned of the proposed modifications to rules overseeing recognition. One, for example, would allow an Indian tribe to show political continuity since 1934 rather than since first contact with European settlers. All are intended to make what has been a slow process in the past run more smoothly.
Since 2013, though, state politicians actively have been speaking out against the changes, which could give groups such as the Eastern Pequots — which won federal recognition in 2002 but lost it in 2005 after the state, North Stonington, Ledyard and Preston objected — one more chance to apply.
For towns such as North Stonington, newly recognized tribes could mean new Indian casinos and thousands of acres of land taken off the tax rolls from land claims.
At the hearing, Bureau of Indian Affairs Assistant Secretary Kevin Washburn addressed members of the House Natural Resources Committee panel on Indian affairs, who invited Blumenthal, Mullane and U.S. Reps. Elizabeth Esty and Joe Courtney to sit in as well.
After Washburn outlined the new set of rules — which he sent to the Office of Management and Budget for final review before sharing with panel members — those in attendance challenged him with questions of legality. The existing criteria, Blumenthal said, are part of a statutory mandate.
"I believe strongly that the process can be made more expeditious and less expensive without, in essence, eviscerating the standards and criteria that are required by the law," Blumenthal said Thursday. "I would emphasize again that there will be legal challenges to the proposals that the BIA has made if they're adopted."
The legal argument presented, among other questions Mullane said Washburn "struggled to answer," gave Mullane hope despite what he called a "we're going ahead with it" attitude from BIA representatives.
"It surpassed any expectation I had," Mullane said Tuesday.
He said his stance wasn't about being anti-Indian, but rather about making sure those that are given "this exclusive privilege" of federal recognition deserve it. He said a group by definition can't be a tribe if its members didn't "live and work together forever."
"There's two parts to this," Mullane said. "Do you have Indian heritage? Fine, we'll respect it. Are you a tribe? No, you're not."
He pointed out that some existing federally recognized tribes are against the proposed changes, too.
"The regular tribes are saying, 'Wait a minute, you don't fund the BIA enough now to take care of the housing, the education and everything else. Why do we want to cut the pie up with another ... 50, 100 more tribes?'" Mullane said. "They don't want it. They're saying, '(Those tribes) didn't pass the test we got.'"
Indeed, the Connecticut Mirror reported April 22 that "representatives of several Indian tribes testified to oppose the changes."
"After the hearing ... we think the regulations are now going to get a fair look," Mullane said. "We hope."
Blumenthal, too, is optimistic the proposal won't pass through the Office of Management and Budget as is.
"A rational public official would have to expect substantial changes in these rules," Blumenthal said. "I am very hopeful that (the BIA) will heed the message that we sent loud and clear that these rule changes will never survive judicial scrutiny."