State lawmakers applaud new federal-recognition rule for Indian tribes

Hartford — Gov. Dannel P. Malloy declared victory Monday in the state’s fight against changes in the federal recognition process for Indian tribes, hailing the removal of a key provision that almost certainly would have enabled three more Connecticut tribes to gain recognition.

Addressing reporters outside the Governor’s Residence, Malloy, joined by U.S. Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy, said the three tribes — the Eastern Pequots of North Stonington, the Kent-based Schaghticokes and the Golden Hill Paugussetts of Trumbull and Colchester — “will not get another bite of the apple.”

The U.S. Department of the Interior announced final revisions in the recognition process Monday morning.

Previously, proposed changes would have allowed tribes that had been denied recognition in the past to reapply under the new regulations, which are less stringent than those that have been in place for decades. Each of the three Connecticut tribes was denied recognition about a decade ago.

Dennis Jenkins, the Eastern Pequots’ tribal chairman, was not immediately available to comment on his tribe’s reaction.

Federal recognition confers sovereign status on a tribe and makes its members and government eligible for federal funding for health, education and housing programs as well as certain technical assistance. It can also enable a tribe to pursue casino development.

Connecticut’s only federally recognized tribes, the Mashantucket Pequots and the Mohegans, own Foxwoods Resort Casino and Mohegan Sun, respectively.

Among other changes, the federal government also eliminated a provision according considerable weight to a tribe’s state recognition. The Easterns, the Schaghticokes and the Golden Hill Paugussetts have been recognized by Connecticut’s government, as have the Mashantucket Pequots and the Mohegans.

“Previously, (state recognition) would have resulted in an expedited ruling in favor of a tribe,” Malloy said. “Now, it’s just a factor.”

Blumenthal said state and local officials in Connecticut were largely responsible for the changes the Bureau of Indian Affairs made in the final regulations.

“We were unusually united as a delegation,” he said. “The BIA remarked on how unusual it was for a congressional delegation to be so united.”

Murphy called the original draft of the revisions “an unmitigated disaster” and a subsequent proposal “a mitigated disaster” that would have guaranteed recognition of the three state tribes. The tribes would have pursued land claims as part of the process, effectively “freezing” thousands of properties for years, he said.

The tribes would likely have wanted casinos, requiring the state and the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes to reopen exclusive gaming compacts.

Officials in numerous towns, including those located near the state-recognized tribes’ reservations, had also lobbied federal officials.

“It is definitely the case that this is a strong and favorable result for the towns and the state,” said Don Baur of Washington-based Perkins Coie, which represents the towns of North Stonington, Ledyard and Preston. “It’s always possible that a new group could surface and claim it qualifies for recognition. Over the years, a number of other groups from Connecticut have let the Department of the Interior know that they plan to submit petitions.”

The Southern Pequot Tribe of Waterford and the Ledyard-based Poquonnock Pequot Tribe are two such groups.

In Monday’s announcement, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and Kevin Washburn, the assistant secretary for Indian affairs, said, “The updated rule promotes a more transparent, timely and consistent process that is flexible enough to account for the unique histories of tribal communities, while maintaining the rigor and integrity of the criteria that have been in place for nearly 40 years.”

Under the rule, petitioning tribes will continue to face seven mandatory criteria for substantiating “their claim to tribal identification, community and political authority.” The rule establishes a uniform evaluation period of more than a century, from 1900 to the present, to satisfy the criteria.

Previously, the BIA had proposed that tribes only substantiate their existence since 1934. The current standard is since 1789.

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

Twitter: @bjhallenbeck

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