BIA recognition process dominates Senate hearing

Author:
Updated:
Original:

WASHINGTON - The Senate Indian Affairs Committee held a hearing May 11 on
the federal recognition process, but Connecticut casino opponents focused
mostly on allegations of corruption and political influence at the BIA, and
urged the committee to repeal the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation's federal
acknowledgement.

The 300-member Schaghticoke Tribal Nation has a 400-acre reservation in
Kent, Conn., where the colonial government first set aside tribal lands in
1736. The BIA granted the Schaghticokes federal status in January 2004, 23
years after the tribe filed its letter of intent. If the tribe withstands
appeals of the BIA decision filed by the state and town, it is likely to
open a casino in a welcoming host community, Chief Richard Velky has said.

Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawaii, advised participants to keep the issues
clear. Most pending petitions for federal recognition were filed long
before the 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, he said.

"To those who believe the process is too slow, too expensive and too
cumbersome, I would suggest many, if not most, of the tribal petitioners
agree with you. So, let's be clear about one thing: the federal recognition
process is about the recognition of the sovereignty of nations that were
here long before immigrants came to America's shores. It's not about
gaming," Inouye said.

Inouye chastised those who oppose the use of state recognition as a
consideration in federal recognition.

"How could it be otherwise? Don't most, if not all, states want the federal
government to defer to the sovereign decisions and actions of those states
over the course of their history?" Inouye said.

In its appeals of both the Schaghticokes' and Eastern Pequots'
recognitions, Connecticut representatives said the BIA unlawfully
considered the tribes' long relationships with the state.

Members of the Connecticut delegation included Gov. Jodi Rell; Democratic
Sens. Christopher Dodd and Joe Lieberman; and Republican Reps. Nancy
Johnson, Robb Simmons and Christopher Shays.

They uniformly criticized wealthy non-tribal backers of Indian casinos and
the impact casinos have on the character and infrastructures of local
communities. They cited the Schaghticoke as an example of the the BIA's
"broken" process, alleging that the tribe did not meet the criteria for
acknowledgement.

Although the officials oppose the expansion of Indian casinos in
Connecticut, they expressed strong support for the state's two existing
casinos - Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun - that together provide almost $500
million from slot machine revenues to the state.

Witnesses included Lee Fleming, the director of the Office of Federal
Acknowledgement, where research teams of genealogists, historians, and
anthropologists review tribal petitions for federal recognition. Fleming
outlined the acknowledgement process and described a number of improvements
implemented since 2001 when the General Accountability Office reported the
process was neither transparent enough nor funded enough to make
determinations in a timely manner.

Mary Kendall, deputy inspector general for the Department of the Interior,
said her office had conducted an extensive investigation of the
Schaghticoke Tribal Nation's acknowledgement decision at the request of
Dodd last year.

"In the end, we found that although the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation
acknowledgment decision was highly controversial, OFA and the principal
deputy assistant secretary for Indian Affairs conducted themselves in
keeping with the requirements of the administrative process, their
decision-making was made transparent by the administrative record," Kendall
said.

In his testimony, Velky blasted Connecticut officials' efforts to rescind
the tribe's recognition and issued them a challenge to substantiate their
allegations of corruption and wrongdoing.

"When we filed our petition, we took the time and the courtesy to knock on
the doors of these senators who testified today and some of the
congressional leaders. They made it very clear to us: Stay within the
system. To say today that the system doesn't work, that it's corrupt with
political influence, is just statements. We're not just going through the
system; the Schaghticoke are also under a federal court order and if they
have evidence to prove any of these allegations, I encourage them to take
the information to federal court... and I'm sure we'll be called in to
answer," Velky said.

Ken Cooper, president of TASK (Town Action to Save Kent), a citizens' group
that formed last summer to help the state and town fight the Schaghticokes'
recognition, said their recognition would be a "tragedy" for Kent.

"Our concern is a federal process that allows the recognition of persons
whose claims are without merits, whose pursuit of sovereignty is
opportunistic, supported and driven by gambling interests," Cooper said.

TASK has raised $2 million and has hired the nationally-known Washington,
D.C. lobbying firm of Barbour, Griffith and Rogers, and another lobbyist in
Connecticut, to influence Congress to overturn the Schaghticoke
recognition.

When asked by McCain whether he'd ever had discussions with the tribe about
gaming in his town, Cooper answered that he had not.