HARTFORD, Conn. - The BIA's preliminary decision to deny the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation federal recognition doesn't mean the tribe won't eventually receive the designation, law experts and tribal leaders say.
The decision, issued Dec. 5, said the tribe failed to meet several mandatory criteria for federal recognition. The tribe could not prove it existed as a community for several periods of time, and it lacked evidence of political authority over its members in the 19th and 20th centuries, the agency said.
[The BIA also appeared to be influenced by a bitter internal split among the Schaghticokes. A group led by Chief Allan Russell and centered on the 480-acre Schaghticoke state reservation in Kent has filed its own petition for recognition and denies the authority of Schaghticoke Tribal Nation chief Richard Velky.
[BIA Chief Neal McCaleb alluded to the split in his proposed finding to decline acknowledgement. "From 1996 to the present," he wrote, "the petitioner's current membership does not comprise all those who were part of the group as it existed from the 1960s through the mid-1990s.]
The Schaghticokes have pursued recognition for 21 years, and a final decision is expected by September of next year. Now, the tribe has to prove it meets the two outstanding criteria to get the preliminary decision reversed.
Nell Newton, who specializes in Indian law, says that task is not impossible. The preliminary process is intended to allow tribes the chance to work on weak areas in their BIA applications, she said.
"They very well may be able to demonstrate that they meet the criteria," said Newton, the dean of the University of Connecticut Law School. "It's not the end of the road until it's a final decision and any appeals are over."
Tribal leaders say they have the documentation to fill the gaps in their initial application.
Chief Richard Velky said the Schaghticokes submitted roughly half of their available historical documentation - more than 1,800 pages worth.
The Schaghticokes can look to another Connecticut tribe for encouragement. The Mohegan tribe, based in Uncasville, was initially denied federal recognition but was eventually granted the designation in 1994. They opened Mohegan Sun casino in 1996.
"They went through the same disappointment," said Trudie Lamb Richmond, a former Schaghticoke chief. "But they were able to turn that around. And we have that same firm belief and that confidence we'll be able to turn it around as well."
Earning recognition allows tribes to receive federal funding for housing, health and education programs. It also opens the door for tribes to negotiate a gaming compact for the state and operate a casino.
Connecticut is home to three federally recognized tribes: the Mohegans, the Mashantucket Pequots and the Eastern Pequots. The Mashantuckets operate Foxwoods casino near Ledyard.
Federal recognition is now tightly connected to opening a casino, and the Schaghticokes and other tribes seeking recognition now face more anti-casino sentiment in the state than the Mashantuckets and the Mohegans did.
State Attorney General Richard Blumenthal and local elected officials have opposed more casino development in the state, and some lawmakers say they will try to revoke the state's Las Vegas Nights law to stop the growth of Connecticut's gambling market.
"The political climate is different now than it was back then," Velky said. "The fact is, you can no longer just go for federal recognition. You have to go for federal recognition and then fight your opponents."
In the text of the Schaghticoke's preliminary decision, the BIA said the Kent-based tribe did not provide enough evidence of political activity from the early 1800s to 1875, and between 1885 and 1967. It also said during some time periods, no formal or informal tribal leader could be identified.
The tribe also did not meet the definition of community between 1940 and 1967, and again from 1996 to the present, the agency said. One-third of the current membership are from a family line that has not been involved with the tribe since the early 1900s, the agency said, and some members have resigned membership since 1996.
"The absence of these individuals who were a part of the social and political relations within the group ... means that the current petitioner, as defined by its most recent enrollment, is substantially less than the entire community," Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Neal A. McCaleb wrote.
The decision did say that all members were authentic descendants of the historical tribe.
"Our genealogy was golden," Velky said. "They knew these people were Schaghticokes."
The Golden Hill Paugussetts, another Connecticut tribe seeking federal recognition, should not be affected by the Schaghticokes' ruling, said Golden Hill Chief Quiet Hawk.
The BIA is scheduled to grant that preliminary ruling in mid-January.
Still, he's nervous. "I feel like a pregnant woman," he said. "When I get up in the morning, I want to throw up."
(Staff and Associated Press reports.)