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BIA changes mind and recognizes Conn. tribe
Friday, January 30, 2004

Members of a small tribe in Connecticut celebrated on Thursday after learning that their long-running quest for federal recognition has ended in success.

Applause, cheers and tears greeted Richard Velky, chief of the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation, as he made the announcement. "Today is our day," he said at the tribe's headquarters in Derby. "Today is the end of a journey for over 25 years."

Only a short while earlier, tribal leaders were informed of the Bureau of Indian Affairs' decision. In what is known as a final determination, principal deputy assistant secretary Aurene Martin, a Bush administration appointee, said the tribe satisfied all seven criteria for federal status.

"The Schaghticoke Tribal Nation has demonstrated continuous existence as an Indian tribe," the BIA said in a statement.

Martin's decision is significant because it marks only the third time that the BIA has changed its mind about a tribe. All three cases involved tribes in New England.

In December 2002, former assistant secretary Neal McCaleb issued a proposed finding against federal recognition for the Schaghticokes. The tribe responded by submitting new evidence to prove continuous existence as a distinct community and to show continuous political authority over tribal members, the two criteria McCaleb said were lacking.

According to the Federal Register notice that Martin signed yesterday, the new information helped patched up some of the holes in the record. In the 13-page document, Martin made note of "significantly greater" evidence to back up the tribe.

The state's recognition of the tribe also played a role. The tribe's reservation, which now stands at 300 acres, was established in 1736.

"There has been a continuous, active relationship from colonial times to the present between the state and the Schaghticoke in which the state treated them as distinct political community," Martin wrote. "The historical continuity of the group has been demonstrated."

The BIA's explanation, however, did little to convince officials in Connecticut, who are vowing to fight the decision. Attorney general Richard Blumenthal called Martin's decision "outrageously wrong."

"The BIA got it right the first time in its preliminary decision," he said yesterday. "What changed their minds is unfathomable and unforgivable."

Blumenthal, who is already challenging the federal status of another tribe, said he would seek a reconsideration through the Department of Interior's Board of Indian Appeals. He did not rule out the possibility of a lawsuit.

Litigation is what prompted the BIA to act on the tribe's petition in the first place. The decision came out of a court-approved agreement involving three different court challenges. Now that the tribe's legitimacy has been established, the tribe can move forward with its land claims.

Another issue looming is a casino, but Velky declined to talk in detail about the tribe's plans. "Let us relish in this moment of federal recognition before we take it any step further," he said. "I"m sure in the very short coming days, I'll be glad to address any questions dealing with economic development."

The tribe, which has about 300 members, is the fourth in Connecticut to gain federal recognition. The Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation was recognized by an act of Congress in 1983 while the Mohegan Tribe was recognized by the BIA in 1994. Most recently, the BIA recognized the Eastern Pequot Tribal Nation in June 2002.

All the decisions were marked by controversy. Although little noticed at the time, the Mashantucket Tribe's act has been questioned in recent years. The Mohegan Tribe was initially denied status but the BIA changed its mind after receiving more information. And the Eastern Pequots were caught in a debate over the alleged influence of Indian gaming money on the Clinton administration.

A ruling is also pending on the Golden Hill Paugussett Tribe, whose status has been in limbo pending reconsideration of a negative decision first issued during the Clinton administration.

All four tribes have been recognized by the state since colonial times. Appalled that the BIA has relied on this status, lawmakers tried to revoke the status of the Schaghticokes and the Paugussetts. Fearful of more casinos in the state, they also repealed a law that paved the way for the Mashantucket and Mohegan casinos, which are the largest in the world.

The BIA's decision will become final 90 days after publication in the Federal Register. But administrative and legal appeals could hold up the tribe for years.

Relevant Documents:
BIA Federal Register Notice | BIA Statement | Richard Blumenthal Statement | Rep. Shays Statement

Relevant Links:
Schaghticoke Tribal Nation - http://www.schaghticoke.com

Related Stories:
Recognition decision expected for Schaghticoke Tribe (1/26)
BIA asked to reconsider tribe's membership roll (12/05)
Conn. AG wants to break court agreement with BIA (11/12)
Tribe seeking recognition purges membership rolls (10/13)
State recognized tribe allowed to sue in Conn. (07/22)
Conn. court upholds jurisdiction over tribe (05/13)
Schaghticoke chief disputes state jurisdiction (01/17)
McCaleb 'throwing away a history of people' (12/06)
Schaghticoke Tribe denied recognition (12/5)
Lawmakers attempt to thwart recognition (12/5)
Conn. tribe awaits recognition ruling (12/4)
Recognition decision expected this week (12/2)
McCaleb plans to issue recognition ruling (11/26)
McCaleb ruling holds promise for state tribes (06/25)
McCaleb makes recognition history (6/25)
BIA project consumes recognition resources (06/12)
BIA recognition staff fails pressure test (05/31)
State challenges Schaghticoke Tribe (04/19)
Tribe's recognition delayed (02/20)
Conn. tribe waiting on recognition (01/23)

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