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Let the games Begin: Victims of success?

While Indian gaming has been a financial boon to some tribes, it has created monstrous headaches for others. Many state capitals, facing gallons of budgetary red ink and watching successful Indian casinos pulling in customers and revenue, are themselves turning to or expanding gambling within their boundaries and, of course, taking a hefty cut.

Yet this is not the case nationwide. In Connecticut, home to a pair of Indian casinos that just happen to be the world's two largest and most successful gaming resorts, a fierce anti-gaming backlash is gathering steam.

The granting of federal recognition on Jan. 29 to Connecticut's Schaghticoke Tribal Nation, certainly a welcome development for that tribe, has enraged many of the Nutmeg State's political leaders. Their knee-jerk reaction has been twofold: to repeat their denunciations of the tribe as illegitimate, and to broadside the entire BIA recognition process as corrupt and biased.

In the wake of the Schaghticoke recognition, state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, presenting no concrete evidence, accused the tribe of using its "friends in positions of power" to secure the favorable decision while simultaneously denouncing the decision as "arbitrary" and "lawless." Blumenthal immediately promised an appeal, which embattled Republican Governor John Rowland promised to back. (Rowland faces impeachment proceedings for lying about accepting gifts from contractors.)

The two are also appealing BIA's recognition of the Historic Eastern Paucatuck tribe in southeastern Connecticut. Similar to the Paucatuck case, BIA's Schaghticoke ruling united a pair of tribal factions that had been quarrelling for years. An application for recognition from a fifth Connecticut tribe, the Golden Hill Paugussetts, is pending at BIA. Blumenthal no doubt has an appeal for this one already on his desk in the event the final decision is not to his liking.

Connecticut's two existing casinos, Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun, poured some $100 million each into Hartford's treasury during the last six months of 2003 alone. Despite almost single-handedly saving the state from fiscal crisis in the 1990s, complaints about traffic caused by the casinos and jabs at tribal legitimacy remain the norm in Connecticut. Apparently, the good people of Connecticut don't believe they can benefit from increased revenue-sharing funds and more jobs that new Indian casinos would create.

As ever growing amounts of revenue passing through Indian casinos during these fiscally challenging times, the Indian gaming industry as a whole is receiving greater attention and scrutiny while recognition has become increasingly tied to gaming rights. Attempts to sabotage the federal recognition process make it imperative to examine that process with an eye toward making it stronger and more efficiency while retaining and honing its accuracy.

On Jan. 28, Congressmen Christopher Shays, R-Conn., and Frank Wolf, R-Va., proposed federal legislation requiring each state legislative to approve any new Indian casinos built within its jurisdiction. This so-called Tribal and Local Community Relationship Improvement Act would also create a committee to establish requirements for federal regulation of Indian gaming. But don't we already have this?

The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act requires that state governors negotiate and sign a Class III gaming compact with federally recognized tribes seeking to establish casinos. States are given a significant regulatory oversight role. IGRA also created the National Indian Gaming Commission, which along with state and tribal regulators already oversees an Indian gaming industry that has repeatedly and often (and usually at Rep. Wolf's behest) been found clean of corruption, scandal or organized crime.

If, and I say again if undue influence is found to have a role in BIA decisions, such influence would obviously have to be rooted out, curtailed and affected decisions, if any, would need re-evaluation. But it looks from here as if Reps. Shays and Wolf are not interested in actually solving anything - they're more interested in expanding state control over Indian gaming for the benefit of state treasuries and to the detriment of Indians.

The answer is not to propose new laws, nor is it to duplicate existing ones and give the tribes more hurdles to jump. The answer is to give BIA the resources to expand its staff and enable it to process applications more quickly. If internal procedural fixes are needed to speed the process as well, then make them, as long as accuracy is not sacrificed. Whether sufficient funding can be obtained in the current fiscal environment is anybody's guess.

Tightening recognition criteria, making it harder for Indian nations to prove themselves, is likewise not an answer. Such tactics are little more than a backhanded way to stunt the growth of Indian gaming. Is it fair to hold today's recognition-seeking tribes to a higher standard than those who already have federal acknowledgement?

Tribes like the Paucatucks, Schaghticokes, Paugussetts and many others across Indian country sought their recognition well before the advent of high-stakes Indian gaming. Many of these, like the six Virginia tribes, may not even want to bother with gaming but are now, unwittingly and unfairly, becoming the victims of their gaming predecessors' success.

The Schaghticokes, 315 members strong, spent some $10 million over 25 years to attain federal acknowledgement of their sovereignty. Their small reservation in western Connecticut is not particularly well suited for a casino, but they are pursuing a claim for surrounding land. While they have not specifically committed to building a casino anywhere, speculation points toward possible Fairfield County sites in Danbury or Bridgeport, both within an easy drive of New York City and Westchester County and their millions of residents.

In closing, we offer the following for Attorney General Blumenthal's consideration. The Schaghticokes have had a reservation in Connecticut since colonial times and state recognition since statehood in the 1780s. If you didn't believe they were a legitimate tribe, why didn't you revoke their state recognition?

If the government of an Indian tribe has the recognition of a state amid which tribal lands lie, how can that state then about-face and claim that federal recognition of that same tribe is wrong? What does that say about state recognition?