Two factions of the Schaghticoke Indians in northwestern Connecticut have sought federal recognition. (Richard Messina / Hartford Courant)
If the Obama administration approves new federal tribal recognition rules, the administration and Congress had better help states deal with the consequences. Two measures that would help Connecticut are:
Decoupling tribal recognition from the ability to operate a casino.
Creating an expedited process to consider land claims that newly recognized tribes may file.
This is a matter of some urgency. Despite vehement opposition from Connecticut, other states and many Indian tribes, the Bureau of Indian Affairs has nearly finished drafting new rules for tribal recognition, the CT Mirror reports.
Under the guise of streamlining the recognition process, the BIA is making it much simpler. This could be a boon to three putative Connecticut tribes that have thus far failed to gain federal recognition. The Eastern Pequot Tribal Nation of North Stonington, the Golden Hill Paugussett Nation of Bridgeport and the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation of Kent, which have been rejected because they failed to prove their continuous existence as a community and continuous political governance, could now strike it rich.
Federal recognition is a gaming permit in states that allow gambling. The federal Indian Gaming Act of 1988 allowed tribes to operate any kind of gambling that was legal in its state. Casino gaming was allowed in Connecticut because of its "Las Vegas Nights" law, which allowed charities to run casino-style fundraising events, though these didn't include highly profitable slot machines.
The two tribes that gained federal recognition, the Mashantucket Pequots and Mohegans, opened casinos and were given the exclusive right to operate slot machines in return for 25 percent of the net revenue, per the deal negotiated in the early 1990s by Gov. Lowell Weicker. But a decade later, state lawmakers, concerned that a reconstituted "casino tribe" would gain federal recognition, revoked the Las Vegas Nights law.
Would the elimination of that law block a new Indian casino? It's unlikely, with two casinos going night and day, but possible. If it did, a newly recognized tribe might file a land claim and try to negotiate for a casino or two. With the General Assembly considering allowing the Mashantuckets and Mohegans to open more casinos, the state would likely be saturated with them.
Curiously, after Connecticut's governor and congressional delegation vigorously opposed the new rules, the BIA put in a provision that would allow a "third-party veto," that is, an entity such as the state that had earlier opposed the recognition of a tribe could veto recognition if that tribe applied again. But on Thursday, the CT Mirror reported that the BIA had withdrawn the third-party veto provision. One is left to wonder who influences the BIA.
In any event, Congress should step up. No one really cares if the Eastern Pequots — pretty much one or two families — and the other tribes get a certificate from the BIA saying they are an officially recognized tribe. The concern is whether they can run a casino (and get other federal benefits). The two should be considered separately.
The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act is there to help tribes promote "economic development, self-sufficiency and strong tribal governments." It is there to promote intact tribal communities, not fragmented tribes that have mostly assimilated into surrounding cities and towns. Congress should create a two-step recognition process, one that acknowledges the existence of a tribal community such as the Eastern Pequots, and a second that determines its casino-worthiness.
Requirements might be a self-contained reservation settlement with continuous government — actually, we could use today's BIA recognition standards.
And, should these fragmented tribes decide to file land claims — potentially tying up thousands of acres in Connecticut — there should be a way to adjudicate them quickly. We can't rewrite history, we can only try to treat everyone fairly.