NEW HAVEN, Conn. - Saying they are fed up with roadblocks from politicians and foot-dragging from the BIA, federal judges are giving a break to tribes long frustrated in their quest for federal recognition.
Three tribes in Connecticut and one in California have court orders setting a deadline for a final decision on their decades-old petitions.
By recent rulings in three separate cases, the BIA has until December 2001 to rule on the Eastern Pequots and the Paucatuck Eastern Pequots of North Stonington, Conn., until March 11, 2002 for the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe of California and until September 2003, for the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation of Connecticut - unless there is a request for a court review or reconsideration by the bureau.
Schaghticoke Tribal Nation Chief Richard Velky said he was glad to see that an end to the process was in sight. The tribe began the process of seeking recognition in 1981 and filed an official application in 1994.
"The BAR (Branch of Acknowledgment and Research) has been averaging 1.2 petitions a year," Paucatuck Eastern Pequots Chief James Cunha said. "They'd better get cracking."
Another Connecticut tribe, the Golden Hill Paugussetts, sued the BIA April 3 in federal court in Washington, D.C., complaining that a decision on its petition was a year overdue, by the BIA's own rules.
And, a lawsuit is in the works from the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe of Massachusetts.
Even though the Paucatucks and their neighbors the Eastern Pequots received a strict timetable in April for final recognition, the Paucatucks recently announced intent to sue the BIA in a legal move to preserve the order.
The timetable for the Schaghticokes came from the U.S. District Court in New Haven, where the tribe has been pursuing two land claims cases. Federal Judge Peter Dorsey criticized the BIA repeatedly for its delay in deciding on recognition for the tribe, a prerequisite for hearing its cases. Last year he announced he would make the decision himself. After intense negotiations he returned the petition to the BIA on May 10 but attached a concrete timetable.
This "rush to the courts" reflects a crisis of confidence in the BIA brought by recent revelations that staff formerly trusted by the tribes have switched sides and gone to work for their local opponents, Cunha said.
Tribal lawyers have been emboldened by a string of successes since last June. The floodgates opened in the U.S. District Court for Washington, D.C., when Judge Ricardo Urbina ruled that BIA treatment of the Muwekma tribe violated the federal Administrative Procedure Act (APA). This law requires federal agencies to conclude cases "within a reasonable time."
Judge Urbina ruled last June 30 that the BIA's "ambiguous, indefinite time frame for review of the plaintiff's petition constitutes unreasonable delay."
In January, he amended his order to set a definite timetable.
The Golden Hill Paugussetts are following this route, bringing suit under the Administrative Procedure Act in the D.C. courts.
These judicial actions fly in the face of a call by state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal and several Connecticut congressmen for a moratorium on federal recognitions. Aurelius H. Piper Jr., Chief Quiet Hawk of the Golden Hill tribe, said the lawsuits are a direct reaction to Blumenthal's "attacks against the BIA and the Connecticut-recognized tribes."
In a prepared statement, the Golden Hill tribe said, "The problem is not with the evidence, it is with BIA's delay in reviewing it. As a number of officials have pointed out, this delay has been largely caused by Blumenthal's politically motivated obstruction."
Blumenthal reacted quickly to the charge, releasing a statement saying, "Neither my office, nor I, nor the state have been named as a defendant, so these personal attacks are typically gratuitous and inaccurate.
"My office's involvement has been simply to assure that the recognition process is fair, open and accurate. I have sought to protect the public interest and safeguard the process against the improper influences of money and politics."
The timetable for the eastern Pequot tribes came in the context of a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court in Hartford brought by Blumenthal and three southeastern Connecticut towns against the Interior Department and the BIA. The suit charged that the BIA violated the federal Freedom of Information law in its delayed response to document requests from the three towns.
Although the suit at first pitted the towns only against the federal agencies, the two eastern Pequot tribes petitioned to be added as defendants to prevent an out-of-court settlement they feared would sell out their interests.
Federal lawyers responded to the judge's order in early May, asking him to drop the recognition timetable as outside his jurisdiction. In their turn, the Paucatucks launched another legal maneuver, asking Judge Alfred Covello to allow them to file a "cross-claim" against their fellow defendant the BIA.
They said this suit within a suit was meant to preserve Judge Covello's timetable.
The plaintiffs North Stonington, Ledyard and Preston are neighbors to the Lantern Hill reservation shared by the eastern Pequot tribes and the Foxwoods Casino on the Mashantucket (western) Pequot reservation. Their town leaders are vehement critics of the Mashantuckets as well.
Eastern Pequot leaders and advisers say the BIA has already produced 40,000 pages of documents and that delay has come in producing transcriptions of hours of taped field interviews with tribal elders.
They say the FOI request consumed the full time of four employees in the BIA's Bureau of Acknowledgement and Research, clogging the process for tribes across the country.
Judge Covello ordered the federal agencies to produce all requested documents by May 4. But he also set the same deadline for Blumenthal and the towns to respond to FOI requests from the eastern Pequot tribes.
Mark Sebastian, vice chairman of the Eastern Pequot Tribal Council, is separately suing the town of North Stonington for an accounting of the estimated $200,000 it has spent fighting the Pequot recognition petitions.
Judge Covello also ordered the BIA to provide a further "technical assistance" hearing on the petitions. He gave the agency seven months after complying with the FOI to produce a final determination.