SOUTHHAMPTON, N.Y. – Final challenges to the Shinnecock Indians’ federal acknowledgment have been tossed aside, clearing the way for the Long Island-based tribe to take its place as the 565th American Indian tribe in a nation-to-nation relationship with the united States government.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs acknowledged the Shinnecock Indian Nation in a Final Determination in June. But during the 30-day comment period following the decision, a group called the Connecticut Coalition for Gaming Jobs and a faction of the Montauk Indians of Long Island filed 11th hour challenges, asking the Interior board of Indian Appeals to reconsider the decision.
On Oct. 1, the IBIA rejected the appeals, ruling that neither group had legal standing to appeal. “This closes a chapter in the tribe’s 32 year long struggle to obtain recognition and opens a door to a bright future that will include new opportunities,” said Randy King, chairman of the Shinnecock Indian Nation board of Trustees. “We’re finally here,” said Lance Gumbs, Shinnecock senior trustee and vice president of the National Congress of American Indians northeastern region.
“It’s been 32-and-a-half years,” Gumbs said, referring to the nation’s long quest for acknowledgment, which began in 1978 shortly after the BIA established the seven mandatory criteria for Indian tribes to gain federal status.
The ruling is effective immediately.
“This ‘coalition’ could still try and sue in federal court, but as far as the Interior Department and the BIA are concerned – and we consulted with all of them – we are officially, as of today, the 565th federally acknowledged tribe in the country. That’s it,” Gumbs said just hours after the IBIA ruling was issued.
The ruling will be published in the Federal Register, but the time for any kind of appeal through the Interior Department is over.
Shinnecock citizens were elated – again – at hearing the news as they were when they learned in June of their federal recognition, Gumbs said.
“I couldn’t even talk, I choked. I couldn’t even talk about it because we were just in Washington two days ago and there was no answer, they didn’t know when it was going to come and then, two days later, it came,” Gumbs said.
As a federally recognized tribe, the Shinnecock are now eligible for federal funding for housing, health and education – and to open a long-sought casino. Congressman Tim bishop, D-N.Y., released a statement in support of the tribe. “I am pleased that the Bureau of Indian Affairs swiftly dismissed the baseless challenge filed by opponents to the federal recognition of the Shinnecock Indian Nation. Today, the nation’s long struggle for recognition finally comes to an end, and a new chapter opens in their long and proud history.
“I look forward to helping the Shinnecock access the housing, educational and other important federal benefits they are entitled to under law. I will also continue my collaboration with tribal leaders to improve the standard of living on the Shinnecock Reservation and encourage responsible, sustainable economic development which benefits the tribe and our entire community,” bishop said.
While federal status will improve the nation’s living standards, Shinnecock citizen Beverly Jensen questioned whether it would strengthen the tribe’s sense of identity or enhance its culture, which the nation has worked hard to preserve without being federally recognized, she said.
“It’s not something we can forget; it’s ingrained. We’re not going to run and find our culture now that we’re recognized. It’s what we do. It’s why we’re here. We’re here to preserve it,” Jensen said.
The Connecticut Coalition for Gaming Jobs had sought the reversal of the Shinnecock federal acknowledgment, arguing that it was a “mis-determination” because the nation has a financial backer – Gateway Casino Resorts. The coalition also argued that a Shinnecock casino in the New York metropolitan area would compete with Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun in Connecticut and adversely affect “their members” – the casinos’ 18,000 employees, the 9,000 other employees who earn a living from pro- viding goods and services to the casinos, and Connecticut tax payers.
In its 13-page ruling, the IBIA’s two administrative judges wrote that the coalition had not identified a single business or individual as a member, failing to provide proof that any member is an “interested party.”
Christopher Cooper, a spokesman for the coalition, issued a statement Oct. 1 saying it was disappointed in the ruling, the Associated Press reported.
“Today’s federal action is a blow to the Connecticut casino industry and to the long-term economic health of southeastern Connecticut,” Cooper said. “We will review today’s ruling and discuss with our members the appropriate next steps in this process.”
But gaming industry analyst Steve Schwartz lauded the ruling.
“This is a big day not only for the Shinnecock Indian tribe, but for all gambling enthusiasts in New York,” Schwartz told Casino Gambling Web. “While the tribe gets the recognition they have long sought, it is the gambling community that can rejoice in the idea that another casino option will soon be coming to New York.”
The Montauk faction, led by Robert Stevenson of New Jersey, a self-proclaimed Montaukett chief, wanted Long Island Indian tribes to be included in the Shinnecocks’ recognition under a “Montaukett confederacy.”
The judges determined that the Montauk faction lacked standing because it failed to show that it had “a legal, factual or property interest” in the Shinnecocks’ Final Determination, even questioning the Montauk faction’s claim of common ancestry.
“A shared history between the nation and Montauk, and common ancestry among the members of each group, even if shown to exist, is not sufficient, by itself, to demonstrate that the Final Determination may adversely affect Montauk,” the judges wrote.
An attorney for the Montauk group did not answer a telephone call and did not provide an answering service, the AP report said.
Gumbs said the nation is “working through the funding issues and the structuring process” of being a federally acknowledged American Indian nation.
The nation is also moving forward with its land rights lawsuit for around 3,600 acres of prime real estate in the ritzy East End of Long Island where its aboriginal territory lies. The claims have been dormant in federal court for years, pending resolution of the nation’s petition for federal acknowledgment.
“The land claims are still on the table. They’re still breathing oxygen,” Gumbs said.
The difference now is that the nation will have the weight of the federal government on its side.
“The federal government is now going to take them up based on what we see as legitimate complaints,” Gumbs said.