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Nipmucs regroup, locals applaud as McCaleb denies recognition

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SUTTON, Mass. ? Nipmuc Nation leaders are preparing to unload five years of research on the BIA in response to rejection of their long-stalled petition for recognition.

The tribal council said it would try again with 'significant additional materials already developed in support of its position.'

The Nipmuc petition received approval in the final hours of the Clinton administration, but Bush White House officials placed the decision on hold along with all other last-minute executive rulings.

Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Neal McCaleb has reversed the ruling.

Looking for a silver lining, the Nipmuc council said that it could now rewrite a petition that had been 'frozen' since the BIA's Branch of Acknowledgement and Research (BAR) put it on active status in 1995.

McCaleb triggered a six-month comment period by publishing his finding in the Federal Register.

'On the negative side, the reversal is yet another emotional insult added to the more than 20 years the nation has endured the federal recognition process,' the council said.

Since 1995, the Nipmucs said they have received 'seven separate and broken promises of preliminary finding dates.' The Nipmuc Nation originally filed its petition in April 1980.

Since the preliminary approval Jan. 19, Connecticut politicians have campaigned against the recognition and a drumbeat of press articles speculated about the tribe's plans for a large casino in the state's rural northeastern corner.

The case is complicated by a split between the Sutton-based Nipmucs associated with the Hassanamisco Reservation and the Nipmuck Indian Council of Chaubunagungamaug, centered in the south-central Massachusetts towns of Dudley and Webster. The Nipmucks, who use the alternate spelling, filed their own petition in 1996 after withdrawing from the Sutton group.

The two bands, which claim descent from separate reservations, are feuding bitterly. A source familiar with the Sutton Nipmuc petition strongly rejected a published suggestion that the bands would have a better chance for recognition if they reunited.

The Sutton Nipmucs are also dealing with internal dissension over its casino plans. Two former council chairmen, Ron 'Little Crow' Henries and William 'Running River' Gould, question the status of the current nine-member council apparently because of a lack of tribal elections. The tribe is preparing to vote on a new constitution Nov. 3.

Gould applauded rejection of the tribal petition. 'I'm glad it happened. We stopped being an entity the minute outsiders came in flashing money around.'

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The Nipmuc Tribal Council recently signed a widely reported seven-year contract with Lakes Gaming Inc. of Minnesota to develop a casino.

The tribe's ancestral territories spanned central Massachusetts, northeast Connecticut and northwest Rhode Island. But the casino talk has focused on Connecticut, already the site of two extremely profitable Class III American Indian casinos.

Massachusetts politicians have generally supported Nipmuc recognition, but vocal opposition has come from towns neighboring the Mashantucket Pequot's Foxwoods Casino Resort and from Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal.

North Stonington First Selectman Nicholas Mullane, a vehement opponent of the tribes, saw McCaleb's decision as a warning to the two eastern Pequot nations which received 'proposed positive' recognition decisions from the Clinton era BIA.

'It looks like the BIA is taking a very stern look at these things, and I suspect the groups have to have an awful lot of concern about that.'

But Pequot leaders expressed confidence in their own petitions, due for final action by the end of the year. 'They are all judged separately and on their own merits,' said Chief James Cunha Jr. of the Paucatuck Eastern Pequot Indian Tribal Nation.

'We continue to feel very confident in what we have submitted to date.'

Eastern Pequot Tribal Chairman Marcia Flowers said that her tribe's petition 'has addressed the BAR staff's comments and issues and will withstand the utmost scrutiny.'

Attorney General Blumenthal, a Democrat and harsh critic of former BIA heads Kevin Gover and Michael Anderson, applauded McCaleb's Nipmuc decision.

'So critical are the ramifications of federal recognition that everyone involved ? Indians, states, local communities ? deserve a fair, impartial review of every petition, he said in a prepared statement. 'Decisions should be based on well-established legal standards without the influence of money or politics.'

The insinuation that the Clinton appointees had approved tribal recognition because of the influence of casino speculators and Democratic party contributors has been widely repeated in the press but never been substantiated. Gover and Anderson have repeatedly and wearily denied the charge but have been unable to get their rebuttals printed in the papers that have attacked them.

The New London Day, for instance, editorialized Oct. 2 that their 'capricious decisions lent credibility to the argument that it was whom a tribe knew, not how it qualified, that truly mattered in tribal recognition.'

Blumenthal is considered one of the state's most popular politicians. He is scheduled to receive a major humanitarian award Oct. 14 at the 50th anniversary celebration of the Connecticut Regional Office of the Anti-Defamation League for his work in 'fighting hate.'