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 Towns Join Sen. Blumenthal’s Anti-Indian Campaign

Gale Courey Toensing, Indian Country Today Media Network

Connecticut officials have jumped on Sen. Richard Blumenthal’s bandwagon of opposition to the Interior Department’s proposed revisions to the federal recognition regulations.

RELATED: Blumenthal Stirs Opposition Federal Recognition Again

On June 21, Kevin Washburn, Interior’s Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, unveiled a red lined “Preliminary Discussion Draft” of potential changes to Interior’s process for federally acknowledging Indian tribes.

RELATED: Washburn’s Bold Plan to Fix Interiors Federal Recognition Process

Two weeks later Blumenthal organized a meeting in his Connecticut office to rouse local and state officials into fighting the proposed revisions in order to prevent the possible federal acknowledgment of the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation (STN), the Eastern Pequot Tribal Nation (EPTN), and the Golden Hill Paugusetts. Now those state officials are reaching out to both the federal government and local officials in their efforts to delay and ultimately quash any possibility that those three state-recognized tribes could become federally acknowledged.

On July 22, John Rodolico, Nicholas Mullane and Robert Congdon, respectively, the mayor and first selectmen of the towns of Ledyard, North Stonington and Preston in southeastern Connecticut where the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation and Mohegan Tribe own and operate Foxwoods Resort Casino and Mohegan Sun, wrote to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell complaining about what they claim would be “dramatic consequences for our towns and the state of Connecticut” if the proposed changes were enacted. “Despite the clear effect of the proposal on previously denied and potential future tribal acknowledgment decisions in Connecticut, no meeting has been scheduled anywhere close to our state and a short comment period of only 60 days has been offered,” the elected officials wrote. They did not describe the “dramatic consequences” or the “clear effect” of the proposed revisions on the state, but they asked Jewell to extend the August 16 comment period by 45 days.

Even though Washburn had already announced that Interior would hold both tribal consultations and public comment sessions, the town officials pushed for public comments. “We understand that the announced basis for the release of the preliminary draft is to consult with tribal interests under federal Indian policy. Comments from non-tribal interests are also essential, however. BIA can obtain a full record and be properly advised on the proposal only if it provides sufficient time to review this highly detailed proposal.”

The town officials were an integral part of Blumenthal’s previous organized – and successful – anti-Indian acknowledgment efforts. The former Connecticut attorney general orchestrated a campaign of political opposition that included local, state and federal elected officials and an anti-Indian sovereignty group with a powerful White House-connected lobbyist – Barbour Griffith & Rogers (BGR) – in 2004-2005. After 18 months of relentless lobbying, the BIA in an unprecedented move reversed its Final Determinations and issued Reconsidered Final Determinations (RFD) overturning both the STN and EPTN’s federal acknowledgment. James Cason, Interior’s Associate Deputy Secretary at the time and a non-Indian Bush appointee, issued the RFD.

RELATED: Judge Denies Schaghticoke Federal Recognition Appeal

Ironically, the town officials told Jewell there’s no need to change the regulations. “The current rules have been in effect for over 30 years, and we are aware of no reason to rush through a sweeping revision process such as been proposed in the preliminary discussion draft,” they wrote. These same town officials, however, joined in the chorus of Connecticut official voices that complained that the federal recognition process was “broken” and “tainted by political influence” (even though the Inspector General investigated and found no wrong doing on the part of the tribes or BIA staff) when the EPTN and STN received positive Final Determinations but lauded the regulations and process once the tribes’ acknowledgments were overturned.

RELATED: Blumenthal Blasts BIAs New Rules

RELATED: Schaghticoke and Eastern Pequot Decisions Reversed

Schaghticoke Tribal Nation Chief Richard Velky could not be reached for comment, nor could a spokesperson for the Eastern Pequot Tribal Nation. But an STN member close to the chief who asked not to be named said that Blumenthal and the town officials he leads are “up to their same old tricks. They want the extension only so that they can muster up anti-Indian support across the United States to oppose the tribes in Connecticut like they did in 2004 and 2005. They’ve been prepared to oppose the Schaghticokes for the last 200 years. They really don’t need the extra time – all their opposition is already on file with the federal government.”

According to e-mails reviewed by Indian Country Today Media Network, the e-mail to Jewell was written by Don Baur of the firm Perkins Coie, which represented the towns in previously opposing STN and EPTN. The North Stonington selectman sent the letter to several town officials seeking their signatures or suggesting they write their own letters of opposition to the proposed revisions to the Interior secretary.