A lack of Interior fortitude

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The Interior Department's Oct. 12 reversal of recognition for two
Connecticut tribes tells more about the federal government than it does
about the very strong petitions of the Eastern Pequots and the Schaghticoke
Tribal Nation. It says that senior Indian Affairs officials are too
cowardly and careerist to be trusted to defend tribal interests. It also
suggests to us that accusations of corruption at the White House level can
no longer be ignored.

One detail from Interior's action speaks volumes. Instead of telephoning
tribal officials and speaking to tribal leadership directly, Associate
Deputy Interior Secretary James Cason sent his decisions by fax. Aurene
Martin, the last Indian to head the BIA, showed more courage last summer
when she notified the Nipmuc Nation in a personal conference call about the
equally dubious reversal of their recognition. We can understand the
embarrassment and bad conscience at Interior, but this act of petty
cowardice illuminates the deeper void in leadership at the BIA. Interior
personnel are answering not to the tribes, but to their enemies.

Since the departures of Dave Anderson and Martin from the BIA, the Bush
administration has made no visible effort to appoint a successor. The
caretakers supervising the bureau have not made any attempt that we've
noticed to speak against a constant stream of slanders against its staff.
In fact, the acting head took the occasion of a meeting of tribal leaders
(the United South and Eastern Tribes' mid-year session in July) to
criticize the competency of his underlings.

The days when Kevin Gover would stand up to anti-Indian politicians are a
distant memory. With this lack of support, it's no wonder that BIA
professionals are demoralized and easily rolled.

The force of outside pressure provides the only explanation for the abrupt
about-face on the recent recognition reversals. The arguments in Cason's
faxes go beyond the decisions from the Interior Board of Indian Appeals
that voided the earlier positive determinations. Without any evident logic
they repudiate key points of the earlier findings. In 2002, the BIA found
historical continuity between the formerly feuding Eastern Pequots and
Paucatuck Eastern Pequots and recognized them as one nation -- a finding
heartily endorsed by their brothers of the Mashantucket (Western) Pequot
Tribal Nation. The Eastern Pequots, in fact, have healed their split -- an
inspirational example to all Indian country.

But now Cason argues that the earlier split shows they failed to satisfy
the criterion of continuous community: "The two separate communities after
the early 1980s are not the same community that existed before that time."
The BIA earlier pulled a similar trick on the Nipmuc Nation, completely
changing the criteria it had used in 2002 to give it a positive
determination.

Don't bother looking for consistent logic. It's painfully obvious that
Interior is arbitrarily changing standards, hair-splitting and imposing
impossible conditions to reach a pre-determined result -- no "new"
federally recognized tribes.

When the government says it has a process, and then keeps changing the
process to make it impossible to satisfy, one has to wonder if it is in
fact denying due process. This becomes a matter for the federal courts.
Several recognition petitions have already wound up before properly
appalled federal judges. The Schaghticokes, for one, are talking about a
federal lawsuit, and they seem to us to have some very good issues.

The first issue, of course, would be the arbitrary action of the Interior
bureaucracy. But a further issue might take more than the courts to
resolve.

The Schaghticokes have caught a whiff of corruption about their treatment.
They are charging that Connecticut politicians and the wealthy neighbors of
their historic northwest Connecticut reservation used improper influence on
Interior and the White House. The townspeople of affluent Kent hired the
consulting firm founded by the well-connected Haley Barbour to lobby
against recognition. The Schaghticokes have found evidence that the
lobbyists arranged a White House meeting before the IBIA voided the
Connecticut recognitions.

This charge might sound ironic, given the high volume of the charges from
Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal and his fellow
Indian-fighters that financial backers of the petitioners were corrupting
the BIA recognition process to get casinos. Like much propaganda, these
charges now sound like what the psychologists call projection: accusing
your enemy of doing what you mean to do yourself.

The documented evidence of improper conduct all concerns the opposition to
the tribes. Blumenthal lobbied Interior Secretary Gale Norton in violation
of court orders. The law firm representing the towns hired a former BIA
recognition officer to help it beat the Eastern Pequot petition that she
helped prepare. And of course the towns, state officers and, shamefully,
the Connecticut congressional delegation kept up a vociferous, distorted
and even lying campaign against the petitioning tribes, their backers and
Indian country itself.

The mainstream media largely swallowed this campaign and its underlying
bigotry. Shoddily researched books by a certain Jeff Benedict and several
imitators continue to be cited uncritically. They draw on an underlying
hatred and resentment of Connecticut Indians that has to be experienced to
be believed. This bigotry is surfacing more frequently in national
discourse. Lou Dobbs can't go half a minute into his nightly broadcast on
CNN without attacking "illegal immigrants." White supremacists have picked
up the chant, and they are talking about the indigenous peoples of the
continent, not Europeans. The leader of one fringe anti-immigrant group in
Connecticut recently told the Hartford Courant that he could identify
illegals by their "Mayan features."

Indian country must and can unify to defeat this threat, but some
soul-searching and purification will first be in order. Some recognized
tribes have intervened in the recognition process, openly or not, to keep
down would-be rivals. In the aftermath of the Oct. 12 decision, Democratic
National Committee Chair Howard Dean cited this tribe-against-tribe
lobbying as a reason for declining to criticize the Bush administration's
action.

Some of these interventions come from tribal histories of schisms and
ancient rivalries. Others look simply like attempts to preserve market
share for tribal casinos. Whatever the cause, this internecine sabotage
hurts all of Indian country and will surely blow up in the face of the
established tribes playing this game. In spite of these blemishes, this
generation of tribal leaders has shown reserves of strength and wisdom that
it will need as it faces a growing challenge, by itself.

Anti-Indian forces have been smelling blood for some time. They are already
re-energized, and the Connecticut experience will boost their spirits even
higher. Indian country urgently needs to wake up and begin deploying its
own resources to fight this threat. We are certainly not going to get any
help in the struggle from the BIA in Washington, D.C.