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Blumenthal Stirs Opposition to Federal Recognition – Again

Sen. Richard Blumenthal has started stirring up opposition to proposed revisions to the federal acknowledgment process in Connecticut.

It didn’t take long for the Connecticut official who was once called “the enemy of Indian country” to start stirring up opposition to proposed revisions to the federal acknowledgment process.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal organized a meeting in his Connecticut office on July 9 office to rouse local and state officials into fighting a “Preliminary Discussion Draft” of potential changes to the federal acknowledgment regulations. The draft was released just two weeks earlier by Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Kevin Washburn. It was enthusiastically received by tribal leaders and others at the National Congress of American Indian’s Federal Recognition Task Force during the organizations’ mid-year conference in Reno, Nevada, at the end of June. (Related stories: Washburn’s Bold Plan to Fix Interior’s Federal Recognition Process)

The news that Blumenthal was working to undermine Washburn’s proposal was announced in a newspaper report datelined Kent, Connecticut, where the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation has a 400-acre reservation and a pending land claim under the 1790 Indian Trade and Nonintercourse Act for some 2,000-plus acres, including hundreds of acres used by Kent School, a private prep school. “Town, school gird for fight: Legal battle looms on tribal recognition,” in the Republican American reported on a Kent Board of Selectmen’s meeting July 2 when First Selectman Bruce Adams shared a three-page document called “Talking Points – Proposal Will Change BIA Rules and Award Federal Tribal Status to Previously Denied Tribal Groups in CT” and announced he would attend a meeting the next week at Blumenthal's office to discuss the proposed changes to the federal acknowledgment process.

Blumenthal is perhaps best known in Indian country for his successful effort in 2005 to reverse the federal acknowledgment of the Eastern Pequot Tribal Nation (EPTN) and the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation (STN), which were given Final Determinations in 2002 and 2004, respectively. After a relentless and orchestrated campaign of opposition against the STN by local, state and federal elected officials led by Blumenthal and an anti-Indian sovereignty group and its powerful White house-connected lobbyist, Barbour Griffith & Rogers (BGR), the BIA in an unprecedented move issued Reconsidered Final Determinations and took away both tribes’ federal acknowledgment. (Related story: Judge denies Schaghticoke federal recognition appeal)

But Blumenthal has not limited himself to fighting Connecticut tribes. He’s also known for advocating aggressively against tribal sovereignty, federal recognition, tribal governments’ jurisdiction on tribal land, and for leading other state attorneys general to join him in court cases that aim to diminish tribal sovereignty. He intervened in San Manuel v. the National Labor Relations Board in which the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit Court disregarded 75 years of tribal exemption and ruled that federal labor laws apply on sovereign Indian land. He led a coalition of more than a dozen state attorneys general to intervene in the Narragansett Indian Tribe’s efforts to place 31 acres of land into trust for elder housing, which ultimately resulted in the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2009 ruling in Carcieri v. Salazar that the Interior secretary does not have the authority to take land into trust for tribes recognized after the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act. Blumenthal testified in front of the House Resources Committee against legislation to fix that ruling, recommending, among other things, that “Congress should have sole authority to approve post-1934 tribal trust land requests.”

Schaghticoke Tribal Nation Chief Richard Velky declined to comment Blumenthal’s efforts or the “Talking Points” document for this story.

Adams told ICTMN he received copies of the “Talking Points” document from Kent School officials and also from a first selectman in the southeastern part of the state where the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation and Mohegan Tribe operate Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun, the two largest casinos in the country. “I’m not sure what the source was and there’s no source cited on it,” Adams said. Staffers at Blumenthal’s office could not confirm if the document was written there, but the fear-mongering rhetoric typical of Connecticut officials’ opposition to tribes is familiar. So are the exaggerated claims of a hostile land take-over by Connecticut Indians.

“In addition to the Kent School property, extensive additional land throughout Connecticut would be subject to land claims, possibly more than one-third of the state,” the document says in part. “New tribes also would get federal land removed from state and local taxation and regulations and lead to new large-scale casinos. As a state, Connecticut will suffer greatly from these changes. … The Washburn proposal must be opposed now.”

The “Talking Points” document bemoans the two most important proposed changes in regulations: that tribes would have to prove continuous political authority and community since 1934 instead of since first contact, aligning the review of a tribe’s petition for acknowledgment with the federal government’s repudiation of the allotment and assimilation policies of the late 1800s and early 1900s, and that new weight would be given to tribes that have maintained a state relationship and a state reservation since 1934. At the same time that the “Talking Points” document warns against a tribal takeover of one-third of Connecticut, it also claims that “Even under these greatly relaxed criteria, the Connecticut groups would fail because they lack such tribal continuity in the post-1934 period.” The claim that “new tribes” would receive federal lands is also misleading since there are only three remaining state-recognized tribes with reservations – the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation, the Eastern Pequot Tribal Nation and the Golden Hill Paugusetts – all of whose federal recognition Blumenthal successfully fought.

The meeting in Blumenthal’s office in Hartford July 9 included Blumenthal’s staffers, as well as staffers from Sen. Chris Murphy and Congresswoman Elizabeth Esty, and state elected officials, Adams said. Asked if the plan is to oppose the new regulations, Adams said, “Yes.” But at the hour-long meeting “there were no decisions made, no documents distributed in terms of a plan,” Adams said.” He said he is personally against the federal recognition of the Schaghticoke, “because of what it could do to this town,” but when pressed on what a federally recognized STN could do, Adams said, “It’s hard to say. We’ve seen what it did to Ledyard and the towns over there [where Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun operate]. I think it’s pretty clear that’s not going to happen here, but it opens the doors to all sorts of things.” Velky has always maintained that the tribe would not open a casino on the rocky and largely remote and inaccessible reservation on Schaghticoke Mountain. “Well, so he says, but. … I haven’t actually met him,” Adams said.

Adams acknowledged that the state of Connecticut would be in worse shape economically than it is without Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun, which combined have contributed more than $3 billion into state coffers since the early 1990s. But, he said, “It was noted at our meeting that the casino industry in Connecticut is dead. Those two casinos out there are still making money but not like they were making.”

Foxwoods Resort Casino reported slot revenue of $43.4 million in June, down 12.3 percent compared with the same month last year, according to the Hartford Courant. Mohegan Sun in Uncasville reported slot revenue of $50.5 million for the month, down 7.9 percent compared with June 2012. The casinos contribute 25 percent of their slot revenues to the state each month. For June, Foxwoods contributed $10.9 million and Mohegan Sun's contribution was $12.62 million to the state's special revenue fund.

Adams said it’s unlikely that an investor would want to build another casino in Connecticut. On the other hand, Adams said he heard from Alan Russell, a Schaghticoke Indian who leads a small anti-Velky faction consisting mostly of his family members, that STN has a new financial backer willing to spend $15 million on the nation’s acknowledgment efforts. “Whether there’s any truth to that, I have no idea,” Adams said. (Related story: Schaghticoke Tribal Nation Seeks to Regain Rightful Status)

Adam conceded that opposition to federal acknowledgment is based on fear – essentially fear of more casinos and fear of the unknown.

“I’m not opposed to recognition itself; I’m opposed to what goes with it. It is hard (to separate the two) but, unfortunately, it’s fact and I think what people are primarily opposed to is some potential unknowns of what could result from the recognition. I don’t think most people are opposed to the recognition, if that’s all it was. We didn’t discuss that – that wasn’t brought up at all at the meeting,” Adams said. Adams said he was told that the worst case scenario would be having “a sovereign nation on the other side of the Housatonic River that can pretty much do whatever they want to do.” But details about what such a sovereign nation could or would do were sketchy.

A former high school history teacher, Adams said he is not unsympathetic to the historical wrongs committed against the Indigenous Peoples here. “I’m trying to understand, but I represent the 3,000 people of Kent and doing what’s best for the town has been my goal since I was elected four years ago. I don’t want [to act] from fear; I want [to act] from fact. That was my reason to go to Hartford and to any such future meetings.”

Although Blumenthal is proactively stirring up early opposition to Washburn’s draft proposal, the regulations have a long way to go before being promulgated as new rules. The current draft is for discussion and consultation purposes, said BIA spokeswoman Nedra Darling, noting that consultation with Indian tribes on draft regulations is required under Executive Order 13175. “In this case, because of the scope of these draft regulations, that consultation is being expanded to include comments from non-federally recognized Indian groups and the public,” Darling said. There will be five sessions across the country including tribal consultation in the morning and public comment in the afternoon. Once all the comments on the draft regulations are received, Interior will draft proposed regulations and publish them in the Federal Register for more comment from tribes and the public and likely more meetings and another round of comments. Interior will then draft final regulations, which will be published in the Federal Register and become effective 30 days after publication.

Congress does not play a role in approving regulations. “The Administrative Procedure Act does not require Congressional review of proposed regulations. Consistent with normal Interior Department procedures, the Assistant Secretary—Indian Affairs will sign the proposed and final regulations, having all of the power of the Secretary to do so,” Darling said. She said Interior will fully consider all the comments on the draft and proposed regulations from tribes, non-federally recognized Indian groups, state and local governments, and the general public.