WASHINGTON, D.C. - Accusations and a call for a Congressional probe loom over the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation of Connecticut.
After weeks of controversy over the tribe's federal recognition by Congress 20 years ago, Rep. Sam Gejdenson, D-Conn., is calling for a Congressional probe of the issue.
"I believe an open committee review, including a public hearing with witnesses representing all interested parties, is not only appropriate, but essential," he wrote in a June 14 letter to the chairman of the House Resources Committee.
The request for an investigation spawned from accusations made in a new book which accuses the Mashantucket of fraud in their quest for federal recognition. "Without Reservation: The Making of America's Most Powerful Indian Tribe and Foxwoods, the World's Largest Casino", alleges the tribe "duped" Congress into granting federal recognition when the tribe was recognized through special legislation in 1983. Author Jeff Benedict claims he can prove the tribe is not descended from Pequots and that it violated the land settlement.
Gejdenson, a member of the committee which reviewed the tribe's recognition bill in 1983, wrote to the Resources Committee June 7 asking for an investigation. However, officials of three Connecticut towns near the tribe's reservation then criticized him for not making a stronger case for a probe.
Gejdenson is being pressured into calling for the probe based on the belief of some local, non-Indians - as Benedict's book alleges - that the tribe failed to submit genealogies to Congress and the BIA as requested, and they received more land than was allowed under the original settlement act.
The Mashantucket scoff at such allegations, pointing to the fact there were public hearings and process was followed. The tribe says the settlement act speaks clearly to the land issue, with which they complied, and that any questions some may have were addressed in congressional hearings.
"Rep. Gejdenson's letter is clearly in the purview of congressional communications," said L. Buddy Gwin, spokesman for the Mashantucket. "However, we already covered this ground when Congress reviewed the issue back in 1983."
While Gejdenson pushes for an investigation, he also said Congress did nothing wrong in 1983 when it approved the settlement act.
"As a member of the committee during the period in which legislation was considered, I believe it carried out its responsibility effectively with the information, testimony and evidence made available," Gejdenson wrote.
The Mashantucket are looking at this as not only an assault on the Pequot, but also a threat on Indian country as a whole, wondering if this is just part of the "cyclical process of termination" and anti-Indian sentiment they say arises time and time again.
"After a Nation is recognized, how many times do they have to go through the process?" Gwin asked. "This is not only an attack on an isolated tribe on the East Coast, but a potential attack on every tribe. Are we now heading back to the termination era?"
The issue of tribal recognition has been the focus of controversy across the country from non-Indians and Indians alike. The controversy reached into the mainstream media, with a recent episode of "60 Minutes" on CBS focusing on the Mashantucket and the Benedict book.
Congress is considering legislation to replace the process used by the federal government to recognize Indian tribes. S. 611, the Indian Federal Recognition Administrative Procedures Act, seeks to replace criteria and standards for acknowledgment used by the Department of Interior with new procedures mandated through legislation.
The Branch of Acknowledgment and Research, or BAR, established under regulations in 1978, is charged with reviewing and evaluating petitions for acknowledgment and providing reports and recommendations to the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs for final determination. This process has come under fire over the past several years by those applying for recognition, members of Congress, and tribes already federally recognized. Criticism has ranged from problems with standards used to meet recognition criteria, to the ability of the BIA to objectively make a determination.
However, tribal recognition has not been exclusively limited to a process of the administration. Congress continues to act in specific cases. For example, on June 19, the House of Representative passed H.R. 946 that would formally restore recognition to the Granton Rancheria of California nearly 40 years after it was terminated by the federal government.
Termination was the result of official federal policy from the late 1940s to 1960s, labeled the "Termination Era," when numerous tribes were "terminated" in a process imposed by the federal government, through Congress, ending recognition of the federal/tribal relationship and tribal sovereignty.
Some in Congress want to end federal recognition through Congressional approval, while others claim it is within the authority of Congress to do so. The Resources Committee has yet to respond to Gejdenson's letter or the issue of the Mashantucket's recognition.