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Campaign 2004: Presidential contenders differ sharply on recognition

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WEBSTER, Mass. - Leading presidential candidates might sound alike in bidding for Native votes in the Feb. 3 round of Democratic primaries, but back home their records differ like night and day on one major Indian issue, tribal petitions for federal recognition.

U.S. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., now considered the front-runner, wins praise from Massachusetts tribes now nearing final recognition decisions from the BIA. But former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., have been part of a state opposition to recognition so vehement that the National Congress of American Indians has declared that it violates the international Anti-Genocide Treaty.

In the last two sessions of Congress, Sen. Lieberman co-sponsored an amendment to impose a moratorium on tribal recognitions by the BIA's Branch of Acknowledgment and Research (now the Office of Federal Acknowledgment). The measure, drafted by U.S. Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., ostensibly increased funding for the BAR but would have withheld the money until the Secretary of the Interior adopted even more rigid standards for recognition. On the one time the measure came to a floor vote, in 2002, it drew support from only 15 senators, two of whom were defeated for re-election later that year.

During most of his terms as governor, Dean fought strenuously against both state and federal recognition for the St. Francis/Sokoki Band of the Abenaki Nation of Vermont. The battle in fact became something of a family feud against the late Abenaki leader Homer St. Francis and his daughter April Rushlow, now chief of the band. The St. Francis/Sokoki Band pointedly endorsed Gen. Wesley Clark for president, saying he was the only one of the candidates who gave them a full hearing.

By contrast, the Nipmuc Nation headquartered here answered a query from Indian Country Today with praise for Sen. Kerry, and other state and federal political supporters. Nipmuc Chairperson Fran Richardson Garnett, said in a written statement, "Senator Kerry - along with Senator Kennedy, Congressman McGovern and our entire Congressional delegation - has been totally supportive throughout our arduous federal recognition process. They know our history and contributions to the fiber of Massachusetts over the centuries. They have corresponded with the BIA and the BAR (now OFA) to try to ensure that deadlines are met; and have always been available when we have needed them. Like our state house delegation in Boston, they believe in us."

At least one unanswered question of interest to Indian country still follows Kerry. Like President Bush he is a member of Skull and Bones, the secret society located at Yale University that is believed to hold the skull of Geronimo. The Bush administration has failed to answer questions on the subject. It remains to be seen whether Kerry will offer his moral and legal positions regarding the desecration of Indian burial grounds and the theft and display of human remains.

Observers are somewhat at a loss to explain the dramatic contrast in political atmosphere between Massachusetts and its southern and northern neighbors, although some historians trace it back to the early 1600s. There is little question though that state and federal politicians in Connecticut are as hostile to federal recognition petitions as those in the Bay State are supportive.

Going beyond Sen. Lieberman's moratorium proposal, Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal has repeatedly gone to court to fight the petitions of three state-recognized tribes. He is appealing the positive finding for the Eastern Pequots, issued two years ago, and has used a variety of tactics to stall a decision on the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation, which was due under a federal court deadline on Jan. 29. The state fight against the Golden Hill Paugussetts has lasted for more than a decade, since its frustrated leaders brought a series of land-claims suits against private homeowners.

A number of towns with tribal neighbors have appropriated funds to contest their petitions, and U.S. Rep. Nancy Johnson, R-Conn., even proposed an amendment to the BIA budget to give federal funding to these challenges.

Exasperated by this protracted fight, Eastern Pequot delegates at the November 2003 NCAI meeting in Albuquerque successfully offered a resolution stating that the use of public funding to destroy the existence of tribal governments violated the international Anti-Genocide Treaty. (Its formal title is Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.) Resolution ABQ 03-135 adopted by the NCAI declared, "federal law implementing the Anti-Genocide Treaty prohibits the use of legislative and administrative processes to facilitate the eventual disappearance of an identifiable group (such as American Indian tribes) protected under the treaty."

In spite of the shock value of the resolution, however, spokesmen for the federally recognized tribes in Connecticut say that Lieberman has mellowed over his career and that he has good personal relations with tribal leaders. After Al Gore selected Lieberman as his vice presidential running mate at the Democratic Convention in 2000, a widely-circulated picture showed then Mashantucket Pequot Chairman Kenneth Reels enfolding the senator in a bear hug.

Indian organizations in that campaign criticized Lieberman for an earlier bill that would have imposed a moratorium on all Interior Secretary takings of land into trust for Indian tribes. In 1997 he proposed an Indian Trust Lands Reform Act, to limit the ability of "economically self-sufficient" tribes to take over land "for commercial purposes." The bill responded to a local dispute between the Mashantucket Pequots and their neighbors, but its vague wording would have hurt tribes around the country. It went nowhere, and, observed John Guevremont, then the Mashantucket Pequot man in Washington, Lieberman never re-introduced it.

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Connecticut tribal leaders have also noted that their nemesis, Attorney General Blumenthal, is following a "template" of issues developed by Lieberman when he was state attorney general in the early 1980s, namely consumerism, protection of the environment and hostility to tribes. But a close observer of state and tribe relations, who asked that his name and tribal connection be withheld, said that Lieberman changed his perspective when he moved to the federal level.

"Governors and attorneys general are virtually natural enemies of the tribes," he said. "When they make the move to federal jurisdiction, it's an entirely new ballgame.

"When Lieberman went to the Senate, he definitely changed his perspective."

Howard Dean changed his tune on Indian issues as well when he began his run for President, but it was an even more wrenching transition. In an appearance at the November NCAI annual meeting, he promised to support national Indian gaming. But through most of his term as governor he opposed state or federal recognition for the St. Francis/Sokoki Band of Abenaki on the grounds that it would open the state to a casino and land claims suits.

In a January 2002 press conference, he spoke against a proposed Joint Resolution in the state legislature to grant the Abenaki state tribal status. According to a transcript, he said the measure would "allow them to open gambling casinos without any input from the state essentially. It would also paralyze anybody from getting a mortgage or selling their house for the foreseeable future."

The Abenaki denied that they had either a casino or land claims suits in mind. According to their historian and spokesman, professor Frederick Matthews Wiseman, the tribe has no outside financial backing because the Montreal casinos already dominated the regional market. The resolution, he said, was needed to allow Abenaki craftsmen to sell traditional work without violating the federal Indian Arts and Crafts Act.

Although the brunt of the fight against Abenaki recognition was born by the state Attorney General's office, Dean stepped in personally later in 2002 in an issue charged with deep emotions.

Through the summer of the year 2000, excavations for a subdivision near Swanton in northern Vermont began to turn up human remains. The work on Monument Road had blundered into a burial ground spanning centuries of Abenaki history. (The street name referred to a historic marker at the site of a famous Jesuit mission from the 1700s. Some of the remains had clearly been buried with Christian rites.)

Although Dean's administration did buy one of the first lots to protect the remains, it soon made clear that it had neither the money nor the will to intervene as further digging uncovered many more skeletons. By the end of the summer, the Abenaki had gathered the remains of 19 individuals, preserving them on buffet tables in their community center. After first ordering a blockade of Monument Road, tribal chair April Rushlow went to state court to seek an injunction. But the state government rebuffed her pleas to intervene, or at least to prosecute the people responsible for disturbing the graves, taking the position it was a local matter.

Remarkably, the tribe went to the local governments and found a solution. A joint Monument Road Working Committee worked out a protocol to be followed in the discovery of future unmarked graves. In January 2002, local legislators introduced the protocol as a bill, "An act relating to the discovery and management of Native American remains." Yet the Dean Administration's critics charge it did all it could to scuttle the bill.

According to Wiseman, Commissioner of Housing and Community Affairs Greg Brown, Dean's point man on the bill, later explained to the Working Committee why the governor had killed the measure. First, it included the Abenaki Tribal Council as a party. Second the state feared that mention of the Abenaki in state documents would strengthen their case for federal recognition. Third, the modern Abenaki community is not a descendant of the historic Abenaki tribe. Fourth, if the Abenaki received federal recognition, Vermont would be beset by casino gambling and land claims.

The campaign against recognition reached its culmination in December 2002, when state Attorney General William Sorrell issued a 250-page report rebutting the St. Francis/Sokoki Band petition to the BIA. Although the Attorney General is an independently elected official, he is closely allied to Dean, and one of his staff is reported to have told an academic critic that Sorrell saw the last weeks of the Dean administration as the "window of opportunity" to publish the report widely. According to Wiseman, the Governor's Commission on Native American Affairs received orders from David Rocchio, the governor's counsel, not to dispute the report.

Unlike the established Connecticut tribes, the Abenaki have not been understanding about their former adversary's conversion on the federal stage. When candidate Dean outlined an elaborate program on Indian issues to the annual NCAI meeting last November, Chief Rushlow called his appearance "a joke."