Eastern Pequot chairman vows to fight new tribal recognition rule

By Brian Hallenbeck, TheDay

North Stonington — Dennis Jenkins, chairman of the Eastern Pequot Tribe, on Monday decried the “dirty politics” he said stand to prevent his tribe from getting another shot at federal recognition.

Responding for the first time to the U.S. Department of the Interior’s adoption of a new “rule” governing the recognition process for Indian tribes, Jenkins said “backroom dealings” in Washington had ensured that Connecticut tribes that had been denied recognition in the past would not get the opportunity to reapply for the coveted status that would make them eligible for federal assistance and enable them to pursue casino development.

Jenkins, in a phone interview, also revealed that Katherine Sebastian Dring, a longtime tribal councilor with a background in education and the law, will succeed him as chairman later this month.

“I knew it was going to happen,” Jenkins said, referring to the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs’ removal from the final rule a provision that would have allowed three state-recognized tribes in Connecticut — the Eastern Pequots, the Schaghticokes and the Golden Hill Paugussetts — to reapply for recognition. A draft of the rule had also included a provision that would have allowed parties to a successful appeal of a tribe’s recognition to block that tribe’s reapplication. The Easterns won recognition in 2002, only to have it withdrawn three years later after the state and the towns of North Stonington, Ledyard and Preston objected.

Jenkins testified last year against the so-called “third-party veto” provision, which most observers believed would have been found unconstitutional.

“Everyone knew it was in trouble,” Jenkins said of the provision. “But it doesn’t make sense that tribes can’t repetition, whether they go to the back of the line, or the front of the line. There are tribes that were denied at first and then got recognized. The Mohegans were denied, but they were able to submit additional documentation and they got recognized.”

Jenkins said Connecticut’s elected leaders, including U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal and the rest of the state’s congressional delegation, pressured the BIA to prevent the Connecticut tribes from filing new applications for recognition. But, Jenkins said, when the Easterns sought to meet in Washington with Kevin Washburn, the Interior Department’s assistant secretary for Indian affairs, they were turned away.

“They got to the president and the bureau,” he said of the politicians. “But Blumenthal and his co-conspirators shouldn’t be doing their high-fives and partying just yet. We’re not going to go down without a fight.”

Leaders of the Schaghticokes and the Golden Hill Paugussetts expressed similar sentiments in the wake of the BIA’s adoption of the new federal-recognition rule.

Jenkins said Eastern Pequot tribal members who are attorneys are looking into ways the tribe can fight the rule.

Elected in 2013 to complete the term of Brian Geer, the former chairman charged with embezzling from the tribe, Jenkins decided some time ago to not seek re-election. He said Sebastian Dring, the tribal council’s corresponding secretary, was the only eligible candidate for the post and would be elected July 25 at the tribe’s annual meeting. Sebastian Dring will not comment on tribal matters until then, Jenkins said.

“Kathy is a very capable person who knows the tribe’s petition inside and out,” he said.

At the annual meeting, tribal members will discuss and vote on a proposed development project that Jenkins declined to identify.

“We’re broke. We need to generate some funding,” he said.

As chairman, Jenkins has repeatedly stated that he doesn’t believe the tribe should pursue a casino if it ever gains federal recognition.

“We would never give up the right to open a casino, but there are so many other economic development projects,” he said. “We have several people interested in working with the tribe on things other than casinos.”

Connecticut officials praise changes on tribal recognition

By Associated Press

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Connecticut’s top elected leaders are declaring victory in their efforts to see that it does not become easier for local American Indian tribes to obtain federal recognition.

President Barack Obama‘s administration on Monday issued changes to regulations that have been criticized as cumbersome and lacking transparency. Proposed new rules that were first issued in draft form two years ago were seen by officials in Connecticut as clearing the way for three groups that previously had been denied federal recognition to win the prized status.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and Connecticut’s two U.S. senators, Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy, said at a news conference Monday afternoon that revisions in the final version will prevent those groups from winning recognition and pressing claims for surrounding lands.

“I would like to thank President Obama and Vice President Biden for heeding our concerns,” Malloy said.

He said the changes ensure that groups in Connecticut that already have fallen short of recognition will be blocked from another attempt.

Connecticut has two federally recognized tribes, the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation and the Mohegan Tribe, which own the country’s two largest Indian-owned casinos in the Foxwoods Resort Casino and Mohegan Sun.

The changes that were initially proposed were seen as benefiting three other Connecticut tribes — the Schaghticokes of Kent, the Golden Hill Paugussetts of Trumbull and Colchester and the Eastern Pequots of North Stonington. Federal acknowledgment can bolster a tribe’s claims to surrounding land, eliminate regulatory barriers to commercial development and bring increased health and education benefits to members.

Connecticut’s congressional delegation said they were pleased the Bureau of Indian Affairs reversed course on a plan that would have given another chance to previously denied petitioners.

“That severely flawed proposal would have forced residents, communities and the state to re-litigate petitions already dismissed with substantial evidence and review — causing needless uncertainty for landowners whose properties may have been claimed as reservation land,” they said.

Leaders of the tribal groups that had been hoping for a new path to recognition did not respond to messages seeking comment.

Connecticut presses BIA to scrap Indian recognition proposal

By Ana Radelat, The Connecticut Mirror

Washington — The administration of Gov. Dannel Malloy has asked the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs to scrap proposed rule changes the state believes could lead to recognition of additional Indian tribes in Connecticut.

The BIA has been considering the rule changes for months. The state says the changes could open the door to large land claims and expanded Indian gaming in Connecticut. Yet Kevin Washburn, Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs, has said he’s determined to fix what he’s called a “broken” federal recognition process.

The federal tribal recognition rules in place require a tribe to prove its continuous community and political authority since first contact with European settlers. Washburn’s proposal would change that to allow a petitioning tribe to demonstrate it has maintained a state reservation since 1934. Washburn‘s new regulation would also allow tribes that have been denied recognition to apply again.

“The proposed rules represent a dramatic departure from the standards and process governing acknowledgment decisions for nearly 40 years,” Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen said in comments filed before a midnight deadline Tuesday. “If adopted as proposed, petitioners could gain recognition in circumstances completely at odds with fundamental principles of tribal acknowledgement. These proposals…are unjustified and should be rejected.”

A new, final Indian recognition rule will be posted within 60 days. It could be modified again based on the comments of the Malloy administration and others, including Connecticut’s tribes.

Gov. Malloy, the Connecticut congressional delegation and most of the state’s political establishment, have pushed back harder than anyone on the proposed rules, even after the BIA changed them to include a provision aimed at blocking three tribes that have long sought recognition in Connecticut — the Eastern Pequots, the Schaghticokes and possibly the Golden Hill Paugussetts.

The BIA had given the Eastern Pequot and Schanghticoke tribes acknowledgement, then withdrew it after an appeal by the state.

At the behest of Connecticut officials, the proposed rules were modified so those who opposed the tribes’ recognition previously would have veto power over a new attempt at recognition.

That infuriated Connecticut’s tribes.

“The BIA failed to consider the long, oppressive history of the state of Connecticut,” wrote Kathleen Sebastian Dring, an elder of the Eastern Pequot Tribal Nation, in her comments to the agency.

Dring told the BIA that, “The third-party veto undermines the BIA’s attempt to create an equitable and objective process for the tribes” and was “imposed by the BIA after political pressure from Connecticut.”

“As citizens [Eastern Pequot tribal members] are entitled to the equal protection of laws in accordance to the U.S. Constitution,” Dring said.

Chief Richard Velky of the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation told the BIA that giving third parties the right to object to new petitions for federal acknowledgement “does not, I believe, comport with the due process and equal protection principles of our Constitution.”

“Nor does the U.S. Constitution provide that a state and its political subdivisions may exercise an absolute veto over the exercise of constitutional authority vested exclusively in the United States government,” Velky wrote.

Meanwhile, Jepsen said the veto provision isn’t a comprehensive enough protection to keep the Connecticut’s tribes from suing the state if it doesn’t  consent to recognition, and “the outcome (of the litigation) is uncertain.”

Jepsen also said he is concerned the proposed regulations wouldn’t block “splinter groups” of Indian tribes from seeking recognition.

Under the proposed rules, the Schagticoke Indian Tribe, a group of Indians that rejected the leadership of the Schagticoke Indian Nation, might be able to apply for federal acknowledgement – and since they were never denied recognition, no veto provision would apply.

Jepsen also called the proposed elimination of the Board of Indian Appeals, which allowed Connecticut to challenge the Eastern Pequot and Schaghticoke recognitions “patently unfair.”

The BIA had granted a Malloy administration request for more time to submit its public comments. The deadline was pushed back from Aug. 1 to Sept. 30.

The entire Connecticut congressional delegation signed a letter that supported the administration’s objections to the proposed recognition rules.

“We…agree the process should be improved,” the letter said, but it recommended more transparency and perhaps a bigger budget, instead of “weakening the longstanding standards for federal recognition.”

The letter backed all of the Malloy administration’s objections and asked the BIA to eliminate the proposal that allowed rejected tribes to petition again for recognition, because the consent requirement or third-party veto, would be challenged in court.

“We note that at least one party is objecting to the consent requirement, contending it may be unconstitutional,” the lawmakers’ letter said.

In all, 255 comments were filed. Many came from tribes and most, like the comment from the National Congress of American Indians, supported Washburn’s efforts.

“Connecticut politicians and their special interests seek to derail justice for Native Americans,” said an unsigned comment. “Please don’t allow the process to become politicized by special interests BIA. Stick to what you believe is fair to Native American tribes.”