U.S. recognition of tribes under revision, roiling communities

Land, business near reservations at stake

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KENT, Conn. -- His tribe once controlled huge swaths of what is now New York and Connecticut, but the shrunken reservation presided over by Alan Russell today hosts little more than four mostly dilapidated homes and a pair of rattlesnake dens.

The Schaghticoke Indian Tribe leader believes its fortunes may soon be improving. As the U.S. Interior Department overhauls its rules for recognizing American Indian tribes, a nod from the federal government appears within reach, potentially bolstering its claims to surrounding land and opening the door to a tribal-owned casino.

"It's the future generations we're fighting for," Russell said.

The rules floated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, intended to streamline the approval process, are seen by some as lowering the bar through changes such as one requiring that tribes demonstrate political continuity since 1934, not "first contact" with European settlers. Across the country, the push is setting up battles with host communities and already-recognized tribes that fear upheaval.

In Kent, a small Berkshire Mountains town, residents have been calling the selectman's office with their concerns. The tribe claims land including property held by the Kent School, a boarding school, and many residents put up their own money a decade ago to fight a recognition bid by another faction of the Schaghticokes.

"Everybody is on board that we have to do what we can to prevent this from happening," said first selectman Bruce Adams.

The new rules were proposed in June by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which invited public comment at hearings in Oregon, California, Michigan, Maine and Louisiana. President Barack Obama's administration intends to improve a recognition process that has been criticized as slow, inconsistent and overly susceptible to political influence.

Federal recognition, which 566 American tribes have, is coveted because it brings increased health and education benefits to tribal members in addition to land protections and opportunities for commercial development.

Tribes have been pushing for years for Congress or the Interior Department to revise the process.

The new rules will create tensions for host communities and some recognized tribes, according to Richard Monette, a law professor and expert on American Indian tribes at the University of Wisconsin. Tribes along the Columbia River in Washington, for instance, will be wary that a newly recognized tribe at the river's mouth would cutting into their take of salmon. Tribes elsewhere fear encroachment on casino gaming markets.

"This is a big issue throughout the whole country," Monette said.

The salmon-harvesting Muckleshoot Indian Tribe in Washington argues the new rules seem to lower the threshold for recognition. Tribal chair Virginia Cross wrote to the Interior Department that the changes, if approved, would lead to acknowledgment of groups of descendants who "have neither a history of self-government, nor a clear sense of identity."

Supporters of the rule change say it helps to remove unfair burdens. Judith Shapiro, an attorney who has worked with several tribes on recognition bids, said some have lost out because records were lost or burned over hundreds of years, and any tribe that was still together by 1934 had overcome histories of mistreatment and pressure to blend in with mainstream society.

But Nicholas Mullane, the first selectman in North Stonington, Conn., questions whether a Connecticut tribe whose members have played in the local little league and joined local churches should have the same standing as others. He is preparing to fight a renewed recognition bid by the Eastern Pequots, who have a small state-issued reservation in town.

"It's not like somebody in the West where you have a huge reservation and a government and they meet regularly," he said.

The Schaghticoke reservation dates to the mid-1700s, but it has been carved up to a tenth of its original size. As recently as 1960, said Russell, 67, the town fire department would come out to burn down homes on the reservation when tribal members died to prevent others from occupying them.

When Russell's own house burned down in 1998, however, the townspeople from across the Housatonic River helped him to rebuild. Russell, who grew up hunting and fishing on the reservation, said if the tribe wins recognition it can work something out with the town on the land claims.

"That's what I want them to understand," he said. "We're not the enemy."