Blumenthal is ‘ready to listen and learn’ from Indian country

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HARTFORD, Conn. – State Attorney General Richard Blumenthal said he is ready to listen and learn from tribal leaders and Indian country as he prepares to run for the U.S. Senate.

Blumenthal announced the first week of January that he would seek the Senate seat currently held by Democrat Sen. Chris Dodd, who is not seeking re-election after serving five terms.

Long seen as a foe of Indian country, Blumenthal said that, if he is elected, his new role as senator will require a different approach to Indian issues.

“I view these issues as extraordinarily important, so I can talk to you a little bit about them now, but my responses will be somewhat more general than they may be in a month or two after I think through some of the implications.”

Blumenthal intervened in the San Manuel and Carcieri cases mentioned in the interview. In San Manuel, a federal court panel ruled that tribal nations are subject to the National Labor Relations Act; in Carcieri, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the

Interior secretary does not have authority to take land into trust for tribal nations federally acknowledged after the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act.

Following are excerpts from the interview:

Indian Country Today: You have been perceived as a foe of Indian country. What is your understanding of the reasons for that perception? What is your response to it?

Richard Blumenthal: My view is some perceptions of me as a public official and perhaps as a person are based on misconceptions. I have deep and unshakeable respect for the principles of sovereignty and I have emphasized at every opportunity how soundly significant the principles of sovereignty are as legal and policy precepts. I believe in the concept of sovereignty as the two tribes here (Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation and Mohegan Tribe) know well. I’ve made that belief a matter of action as well as words, and the respect for sovereignty is one of the reasons that I have opposed some of the petitions for federal recognition when tribal groups fail to meet the legal criteria.

I believe that federal recognition bestows a status of sovereignty that is solemn and historic, and it changes the relationship between the state and the tribe. It becomes a government-to-government relationship, which I respect, and it should be done only when all the criteria are met.

I’ve also emphasized that the two federally recognized tribes in Connecticut merit federal recognition on the facts so I’ve not opposed all tribes seeking recognition. I’ve opposed those I felt lacked sufficient evidence to meet the criteria. Those tribal groups may contend I was wrong in my assessment of the evidence, but ultimately the federal government agreed.

ICT: While you’ve often said you support tribal sovereignty, your interventions in Carcieri and San Manuel are seen as contradictions of that assertion. Would you see a need to mend fences with Indian country if you are elected, and if so what will your approach be?

RB: The point is I’m seeking a new and different role as an elected official. I really hope to begin a conversation with tribal leaders across the country, because if I am fortunate enough to be successful in becoming a U.S. senator, my role will be a very different one than it is right now.

Obviously, I’ve taken positions on these issues as a state official and attorney general advocating Connecticut’s interests and I would continue to have as my priority the people of Connecticut, but I want to be fully understood and I want to fully understand the perspectives and information that Indian country can provide to me.

A national legislator has a completely different role and assignment and mission, and I would hope to listen – and I really mean listen carefully and thoroughly – to the messages and the insights that tribal leaders have, and perhaps to dispel some of the misconceptions, but more importantly, to learn from them.

ICT:San Manual and Carcieri directly diminish sovereignty, especially Carcieri, because sovereignty is land based and there are some tribes, including newly acknowledged ones that are landless. How do you reconcile that perceived contradiction?

RB: I stand by the positions I’ve taken as attorney general. These issues are by no means simple in so far as they involve statutory interpretation. For example, San Manuel involved an issue of the National Labor Relations Act statutory interpretation.

Carcieri involved a U.S. Supreme Court stating and I’m quoting ‘plain and unambiguous intent of the Indian Reorganization Act.’ The positions I took legally in those cases were vindicated by the courts. Nobody can say that I took outlandish or even unfounded legal positions. In fact, they were successful and correct, according to the courts.

ICT: Your position on Carcieri was upheld, but the law is not carved in stone and Congress is contemplating a ‘Carcieri fix.’ How do you think you’d approach the Carcieri fix if you were in the Senate now?

RB: I would want to talk to Indian leaders before setting forth any detailed set of positions on how the IRA can be improved and I’ve said that about a number of other issues. But the overall conversation I would like to have with Indian country is not about statutory interpretation or technical legal points. It’s about ultimate goals and common grounds – that’s the most important point because my responsibilities, again if I’m fortunate enough to be elected, would be much larger than just legal advocacy in court.