SUTTON, Mass. - As leaders of the Nipmuc Tribal Nation recover from the
initial shock of losing their bid for federal recognition, they are
accumulating examples of what they call inconsistencies and plain factual
errors in the BIA Final Determination issued on June 18.
They say an appeal is certain, although they are not yet sure what form it
Nipmuc Nation Chief Walter Vickers and Tribal Council Chairperson Fran
Richardson Garnett, along with members of the council, met with the press
shortly after taking the call from Principal Deputy Assistant Interior
Secretary of Indian Affairs Aurene Martin. What they had hoped would be a
festive occasion turned into one of heavy disappointment, but Garnett and
Vickers insisted the tribe would carry on.
"We know who we are," said Garnett.
In a joint statement, they said, "This is just wrong. We have fought for
decades through every imaginable obstacle for this long-withheld
recognition, despite our people tracing back thousands of years and
recognition by the Commonwealth [of Massachusetts] for more than 300 years.
"Now, we will take whatever course is necessary to assure our deserved
The BIA turned down two Nipmuc (or Nipmuck) petitions, one from the Nipmuc
Nation headquartered in Sutton and the other from the Webster/Dudley Band
of Chaubunagungamaug Nipmuck Indians, which split from the first filing in
1996. Bert Heath, council chairman of the Webster/Dudley Band, said, "We're
a little sad and broken-hearted."
The two groups had gathered in their separate headquarters to wait for the
notifying phone calls from the BIA's Martin, which came June 18 after
repeated postponements. The shock to the Nipmuc Nation was especially
intense, however, since it had actually won federal recognition for about a
month in January 2001.
The initial proposed finding, signed by Acting Assistant Secretary of the
Interior - Indian Affairs Michael J. Anderson in the last days of the
Clinton administration, said the Nipmuc Nation met all seven criteria for
Federal acknowledgement. The incoming Bush administration, which was sworn
in the next day, froze all of the Clinton administration's last-minute
actions. Later in the year, the new BIA chief Neal McCaleb reversed the
recognition. This year's June 18 finding, signed by Martin, said the
Nipmucs failed to meet four of the seven criteria.
The Webster/Dudley Band fell short on three of the seven, in a repeat of
its 2001 turndown. The Office of Federal Acknowledgement (OFA) said,
however, that the Webster/Dudley Band succeeded in showing that most of its
members descended "from a historical Indian tribe," the fifth criterion.
But OFA held that only 2 percent of the Nipmuc Nation members descended
from the historic Hassanamisco Indians. The majority of its members, said
OFA, came from the Dudley/Webster group. "The available evidence indicates
that the Dudley/Webster Indians and the Hassanamisco Indians were separate
tribes which did not combine into one tribe historically."
Nipmuc leaders said they were puzzled by what they saw as a sudden shift in
OFA's standards. Earlier in the process, said Garnett, OFA's predecessor,
the Branch of Acknowledgment and Research, had criticized them for showing
firm genealogies for only a bit more than half of the membership roll of
more than 1,600. In response, the tribe pared its rolls to 527 members.
"You would think the percentage would go up," she said. "But now we're down
to 2 percent." Garnett herself descends from the Pegan family of the
Webster/Dudley Band. She said that OFA researchers had previously cited her
as an example of the Chaubunagungamaug presence in the Nipmuc Nation.
The positive finding in 2001 treated the nation as the descendant of both
Nipmuc groups. "After the King Philip's War of 1675 - 1676, there was
continuity in the re-establishment of Hassanamisco and Chaubunagungamaug
bands by pre-war refugees who had gone to Natick, Mass.," said the BIA
announcement on January 19, 2001.
No immediate explanation was available from BIA officials about the
apparent shift in the historical standards for defining a tribe. Anderson
declined to comment when cornered by Indian Country Today at a karaoke
party held by his current employers, the Monteau and Peebles law firm, at
the recent mid-year meeting of the National Congress of American Indians at
the Mohegan Sun. "I might be called as a witness," he said, referring to
possible Nipmuc litigation.
But one political figure claimed a hand in influencing both this outcome
and the rejection on June 14 of the petition from the Golden Hill
Paugussetts of Connecticut. "I think these decisions reflect a
responsiveness to the criticism that we made," said Connecticut Attorney
General Richard Blumenthal, an opponent of new tribal recognitions in his
region. "The BIA is heeding those criticisms and perhaps exercising greater
restraint than it would have otherwise."
Blumenthal and the entire Connecticut Congressional delegation have
repeatedly sponsored legislation to place a moratorium on federal tribal
recognitions or to make the process more difficult. In a talk earlier this
year to the Indian Bar Association, the BIA's Martin warned that new bills
might emerge during the summer.
Although Blumenthal and his close ally, the anti-Pequot writer Jeff
Benedict, say they are primarily opposed to new tribal casinos in the
state, Blumenthal has also warned that federal recognition would give some
tribes standing to press land claims suits in the federal courts.
Press reports on the Nipmuc and Nipmuck petitions have focused on their
possible plans for a casino. Minnesota-based Lakes Entertainment and its
head Lyle Berman have provided millions in financial backing for the Nipmuc
Nation petition. Berman was previously a business partner with the recently
appointed Assistant Interior Secretary of Indian Affairs David Anderson,
who cited the connection in formally recusing himself from all recognition
and gaming decisions at the BIA. Press reports are speculating whether
Lakes Entertainment will continue to back the Nipmucs.
Heath, chairman of the Dudley/Webster band tribal council, said his group
had no casino backing.
This speculation annoys the Nipmuc Nation leadership, who insist that
recognition is a matter of historic identity, as well as access to "a host
of federal programs and benefits designed to help provide economic
self-sufficiency and increase greatly education opportunities, health
service benefits and private enterprise development" for its members.
Garnett said the tribal government would continue providing existing
services, including a Nipmuc Nation Transportation Service company for
needy and handicapped members. She said it would also press ahead with
preservation of historic sites, such as the Homestead, the early 19th
century tribal residence in Grafton that the Nipmucs regard as their