SUTTON, Mass. - More than 324 years after fighting on the losing side of King Philip's War and 20 years after petitioning for federal recognition, the Nipmucs of Massachusetts are on the verge of regaining sovereign status. But they ran into last-minute roadblocks.
Acting BIA chief Michael Anderson signed a "proposed finding" for recognition of the Hassanamisco Band of Nipmucs on 8:30 p.m. Jan. 19 in the final hours of the Clinton administration. He rejected the claim of the smaller Chaubunagungamaug Band of the Nipmuck Nation, which split off from the main application and filed a separate petition in 1996.
But the BIA delayed publishing both decisions in the Federal Register when the in-coming Bush White House ordered a hold on last-minute decisions.
Then Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal belatedly jumped on the case. Blumenthal, a Democrat who earlier that week sued the BIA to take back recognition of two other Connecticut tribes, reportedly called on the White House to rescind the Nipmuc finding.
In a press release and letter to White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card, he denounced the alleged midnight recognition as "the latest event in a series of actions that calls into question the BIA's credibility and fairness to the states and other interested parties."
In fact, the BIA had promised the Nipmucs to make a decision by Nov. 30. In a letter on that date, departing BIA head Kevin Gover asked the tribe to wait until mid-December. When that day came, he further delayed the decision by recusing himself, saying he was taking a job with a law firm that sought business with the tribe.
The final decision, said Nipmuc Nation Chief and Councilman Walter Vickers, "is a monumental day in the history of the Nipmuc people. We have fought for years for this long-withheld recognition, despite the roots of our people having been traced back thousands of years."
Vickers spoke for the Hassanamisco Band based in Sutton, Mass., which claims 1650 members in central Massachusetts and northeastern Connecticut.
But the day was a disappointing one for the Chaubunagungamaug Nipmuck Indian Council, based in Webster and Dudley, Mass., which claims 250 members.
"However, the petition process is far from over," said Edwin Morse Sr., its 70-year-old leader who is also known as Chief Wise Owl. "We met four of the criteria and we will have the opportunity to submit additional documentation to prove our identity as a tribe.
"We are confident that we will be able to do that and are committed to fighting for what we know is ours," Morse said.
In the proposed finding, the BIA press release says the agency covered both Nipmuc bands in its recognition of the Nipmuc Nation headquartered in Sutton. "The bureau found that a substantial portion of the petitioner's members have ancestry from the contact-era Nipmuc bands except through the twelve Nipmuc 'praying towns' established by missionary John Eliot in the 1660s and 1670s.
"After the King Philip's War of 1675-1676, there was continuity in the re-establishment of Hassanamisco and Chaubunagungamaug bands by prewar refugees who had gone to Natick, Massachusetts. There is continuity for both Hassanamisco and Chaubunagungamaug from the early 18th century through 1869, the date of the Massachusetts Enfranchisement Act and the commonwealth's termination of trust responsibility over the land and funds of the two reservation bands."
In rejecting the petition of the Webster/Dudley Band of Chaubunagungamaug Nipmucks, the BIA said it failed to meet three criteria showing continuous existence as a distinct community with autonomous political authority. The BIA noted the band was part of the Nipmuc Nation application when it went on active consideration in July 1995, but withdrew in 1996 and submitted its own petition.
Members of both bands say the split reflected an intense feud between their leaders. Morse and another Hassanamisco leader William Gould denounced each other's groups as "social clubs" and even denied genealogies that show they are related. Each band maintains a small parcel of land. The four-acre Chaubunagungamaug reservation, 200 yards over the border in Connecticut, is used mainly for ceremonies. It has no full-time living inhabitants and there is a small cemetery.
Although both bands have denied interest in setting up casinos, rumors persist that they have found financial backers for their petitions. Over the past year, each band found resources to hire professional public relations help.
In spite of the casino rumors, local resistance to the petitions was slow to develop. A 10-town regional government group in northeast Connecticut held several meetings to monitor the applications without declaring its opposition. Local observers say residents in Massachusetts have shown little alarm because that state has more stringent limits than Connecticut on Indian gaming.
Connecticut's Blumenthal was largely quiet about the Nipmucs until the day of preliminary approval. At that point, he issued a sharp statement geared to his lawsuit against the BIA.
"The timing and other circumstances of this decision - issued literally on the eve of the outgoing Administration's departure," he wrote, "does a grave, lasting disservice to the credibility of the entire recognition process. It makes the decision itself suspect."
He admitted that he "had not received, let alone reviewed, the findings."
"While we cannot comment on the merits the decision's timing - so lacking in basic courtesy and common sense - adds a resounding exclamation mark to our call for reform of the recognition process by the new Congress and incoming Administration."
The Nipmuc Nation office in Sutton said it would have "no comment" on Blumenthal.
The process now allows 180 days after publication of the findings in the Federal Register for "any individual or organization wishing to challenge the proposed finding" to submit "factual or legal arguments and evidence" in rebuttal. A spokesman for the BIA could not be reached to determine if the Nipmuc finding had been sent to the Federal Register. Publication of a number of last-minute rulings throughout the government was delayed pending approval by the new Administration.
Other delays are highly likely because of Connecticut politics. Comment periods on the recent proposed approvals of the Eastern Pequot and Paucatuck Eastern Pequot tribes have extended far beyond the 180-day deadline, in part because of protests by Blumenthal.