Federal Proposal Could Affect Conn. Tribes, Lawyers
Sienkiewicz said he's not opposed to tribes gaining federal recognition. But he is opposed to the standards being changed. "If we felt the Schaghticoke's met the standards for federal recognition, we'd be the first to say so," he said. "And the rules are, there has to be a consistent political organization going back to Colonial times. It can't just be a bunch of guys sitting around a coffee table who say, 'We want to be a tribe.'"
It's been the inability of the Schaghticokes to document that they have had an unbroken political and social history since the 1700s that has thwarted their claims for federal recognition. But the proposed change in federal guidelines suggested by the Bureau of Indian Affairs could reignite the efforts of the Schaghticokes, Golden Hill Paugussetts and the Eastern Pequots.
Among the most significant changes in the latest proposal: a tribe would have to show only that it has been in existence since 1934, rather than document ongoing political organization since "first contact with European settlers." Federal recognition could also lead tribe to push their legal argument for land claims. That reality has piqued the interest of other lawyers in the state. Especially those who have worked for or against the tribes in the past.
"Just think about three more casinos in Connecticut," said David Elliott, a Day Pitney partner who represents the Kent School, which sits on land that the Schaghticokes are trying to claim. "This could have devastating consequences across the state." For instances, if the tribes gain recognition, Elliott said, "massive land claims could cast a shadow over land titles for the better part of the state. Selling property would become far more cumbersome as a result."
The Schaghticoke Tribe is represented by Benjamin H. Green, of Zeichner, Ellman & Krause in Greenwich. Green did not respond to messages left last week seeking comment. But others in favor of the draft proposal to change the federal recognition rules say the intent of the Bureau of Indian Affairs is to create a process that is more "fair, efficient and transparent."
Judith Shapiro, an attorney in Washington, D.C. who provided the Mohegan Tribe with legal advice when it was establishing its casino in 1996, said the current standards put unfair burdens on tribes to trace their history over 200 years.
Some of these tribes 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, Shapiro said.
But opponents of the rule see it as unfairly lowering the bar. "The public has until September 25 to make comments about the rule changes, and of course this is an intensely political issue," Elliott said. "This is being pushed by political influences in Washington, and I think it needs to be addressed by Connecticut politicians."
Connecticut U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal said in a prepared statement that the state's congressional delegation is united against changes that he could have far-reaching ramifications for several towns and the entire state. "Our hope is we can dissuade officials from proceeding with a regulatory step that would be very misguided because it would essentially eviscerate and eliminate key criteria," Blumenthal said.