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2007 was an 'ugly year' for some Northeastern tribes

BOSTON - Sovereignty-crushing court rulings; a slimy algae bloom in a traditionally sacred river; a tribe once targeted by a state-sponsored eugenics program denied federal acknowledgment; another tribe's ongoing epic legal battle to restore its own federal acknowledgment; and plain old judicial inertia were some of the aspects of life for Northeastern tribes in 2007.

Shinnecock Indian Nation Trustee Lance Gumbs summed it up succinctly.

''It was an ugly year,'' he told Indian Country Today.

While the Senate Indian Affairs Committee heard extensive testimony about the BIA's ''broken'' federal recognition system, Northeastern tribes continued to live among its ruins.

The Shinnecock Indian Nation, for example, will mark the 30th anniversary of the filing of its petition for federal acknowledgment in 2008. Back in 1978, the Long Island tribe was No. 4 on the BIA list; now it's No. 9.

In 2005, a federal judge ruled that the state-recognized Shinnecock Indians are indeed a federal tribe. But Interior refused to accept the judge's ruling and insisted that the tribe must go through the recognition process. The tribe sued, asking the court to order the department add its name to the list of federally recognized tribes, as enacted by Tribe List Act of 1994, which says a tribe can be recognized by the BIA, through an act of Congress or through a federal court.

But now the lawsuit has been pending for two years and the tribe remains in the ''wilderness'' of non-recognition, Gumbs said.

The St. Francis-Sokoki Band of the Missisquoi Abenaki Nation in Vermont was denied federal acknowledgement last June, ending the tribe's 27-year quest for BIA recognition. The agency's claim, among others, that the 1,171-member band could not prove its continuous existence since 1900 was ''particularly galling, considering Vermont's well-known 20th century eugenics program,'' said hereditary Chief April St. Francis Merrill.

In January 2008, the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation will mark the beginning of the third year of its appeal of the BIA's unprecedented Reconsidered Final Determination on Columbus Day, 2005, to reverse its own decision in January 2004 to acknowledge the tribe in January 2004.

The appeal, which is now in the summary judgment phase, claims the reversal resulted from unlawful political influence by powerful politicians and the White House-connected lobbyist Barbour, Griffith & Rogers, who violated federal laws, agency regulations, congressional ethics rules and court orders in trampling the tribes' due process rights.

The tribe also charges that Interior's Associate Deputy Secretary James Cason had no authority to issue the reversal because he wasn't properly nominated by the president and appointed by Congress.

Federal acknowledgement didn't help tribes in other parts of the Northeast to exercise their sovereignty last year.

In 2006, the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in a 4 - 2 majority decision that the Narragansett Indian Tribe in Rhode Island had waived its sovereign rights when it settled its land claims in 1978 - even though there is no specific language in the settlement act that says so. The court maintained that the state can enforce all of its civil and criminal laws on the tribe's 1,800-acre settlement lands.

Having ruled away the Narragansetts' sovereignty, the court then used its own precedent in cases involving Maine tribes.

In April, a 1st Circuit panel issued a 2 - 1 majority ruling in an employment discrimination case that effectively terminated the Aroostook Band of Micmacs and Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians tribal sovereignty and immunity.

The ruling said that the federal Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act of 1980 and the Aroostook Band of Micmacs Settlement Act subjected the band to total state jurisdiction, including how tribes handle employment - ignoring the fact that the Aroostook Band's settlement came 11 years after the Maine settlement act, which deals only with the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy and Maliseet tribes and doesn't even mention the Aroostook Band. The U.S. Supreme Court has denied review of the decision.

The moment of greatest judicial irony occurred in August when a 1st Circuit panel unanimously ruled that the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy tribes have no authority to regulate water quality standards over their historic waterways just as a paper company's illegal chemical discharges caused a 100-mile potentially toxic bloom of cyanobacteria in the Penobscot River - pollution that likely would not have happened under the riverine tribe's regulation.

The court again claimed that the Maine Settlement Act of 1980 and its accompanying Implementing Act eliminated all tribal sovereignty and immunity except the tribes' rights over internal matters, such as choosing leaders and determining membership.

The settlement act is a document that doesn't work for the tribes, Penobscot Chief Kirk Francis said.

A group of legislators and tribal leaders are working on amendments to the Maine Implementing Act to present to the state Legislature next year for adoption.