KENT, Conn. - A bill recently proposed by U.S. Rep. Nancy Johnson, R-Conn.,
is targeted specifically at the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation, but Indians
around the country say it is reminiscent of past efforts to wipe out tribal
The BIA's decision in January 2004 to grant federal recognition to the
Schaghticokes, a 300-member tribe with a 400-acre reservation on
Schaghticoke Mountain in Kent, has provoked legal battles, local concern
and appeals to the Interior Board of Indian Appeals by the state and town.
In February, Johnson took that fight one step further, filing a bill in
Congress to repeal the tribe's federal acknowledgement.
Schaghticoke Tribal Nation Chief Richard Velky has said the nation would
like to open a casino in Bridgeport, Conn., or another welcoming host
community. The fight against the expansion of Indian gaming in Connecticut
is driving Johnson, who represents the state's 5th District, and other
local, state and federal officials to rescind the Schaghticokes' federal
Federally recognized tribes are eligible for federal funding for health,
housing, education and economic development, including the lucrative
profits generated by a casino.
Although Congress has passed legislation to grant tribes federal
recognition, it has never before been presented with legislation to strip a
tribe of its federal status.
The bill, called the "Schaghticoke Acknowledgement Repeal Act of 2005," was
cosigned by Connecticut Reps. Rob Simmons, R-2nd District, and Christopher
Shays, R-4th District. It claims the BIA's decision was "unlawful and
erroneous, in violation of federal regulations and contrary to longstanding
Johnson said the bill was a backup strategy should appeals of the BIA
decision fail. She said she would try to get Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a
personal friend and chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, to
support the bill. McCain scheduled an oversight hearing for May 11 to
discuss the tribal recognition process; not about specific legislation, but
for an opportunity to air differences about the issue.
According to spokesman Brian Schubert, Johnson plans to testify at the
Johnson also said she recognized her bill has little chance of passing, but
she would use it to "educate" her colleagues in Congress about "a broken
recognition process that was twisted and manipulated by the BIA to reach an
unlawful decision regarding the Schaghticoke."
DIVIDE AND CONQUER
Opponents of the bill described it variously as misdirected,
terminationist, an attempt to divide and conquer, and a public relations
gesture for Connecticut's 5th District voters.
Schaghticoke Tribal Nation Vice Chairman Michael Pane said the government
has always used such "divide and conquer" strategies to sow disunity among
"Other tribes should worry about this bill because if it passes, what's to
stop another congressman from doing the same in his state? My position with
other tribes is, 'Your problems and issues today are going to be mine
tomorrow,'" Pane said.
Johnson's bill is not supported by the Mashuntucket Pequots or the Mohegan
Tribal Nation, who own and operate Connecticut's two casinos.
"This is not the kind of bill this tribal nation would support," said
Arthur Henick, spokesman for the Mashuntucket Pequots. "Indeed, we support
the recognition process whether that comes by the administration, through
the BIA, through the courts or through Congress. We also support the
sovereign rights of Native American tribes, and that includes their own
ability for self-governance and for making the kinds of economic
development decisions that best support their own citizens," Henick said.
Mohegan Tribal Chairman Mark E Brown said legislation regarding tribal
recognition should be directed at the BIA and the Department of the
"It is no secret that people on both sides of the issue believe [the BIA]
is severely under-funded and needs resources that can only be given to it
by Congress and the administration. Because congressional offices do not
have the historians, archeologists and genealogists necessary to conduct
the complex research necessary to render a recognition determination ...
the limited resources and energy available should be focused on funding and
fixing the overburdened agency rather than trying to deal with individual
tribes," Brown said.
Larry Townsend, a former three-term council member and current veteran's
service official of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, said he wasn't
surprised by the bill's intention.
"The bill is another delaying tactic. The Schaghticoke earned their
recognition through the BIA process. But for those people, the BIA process
only works when no tribes get recognized," Townsend said.
Dave Kavalas, Johnson's chief of staff, dismissed allegations that the
congresswoman has any big-picture intention concerning Indian rights. "Our
concern and our bill is focused on the wrongful recognition of the
Schaghticoke Tribal Nation here in Connecticut, not on other tribes around
the country," Kavalas said.
Yet at a meeting in Salisbury, Conn, last summer and recently in Kent,
where she unveiled the bill, Johnson said her larger goal is to address the
issue of sovereignty. The Schaghticoke tribe's interest in pursuing a
casino has prompted concerns statewide, but tribal land claims and
questions about what the sovereign nation can and cannot do on its
reservation have been equally worrisome in Kent.
"In the end, we have to follow this through to where we begin to put back
into the box this idea of sovereignty," Johnson said.
"The bill is clearly terminationist in nature," said Kevin Gover, Pawnee,
who headed the BIA from 1996 to 2001. "Other tribes should be, and will be,
alarmed," said Gover, who is now with the American Indian Studies Program
at Arizona State University.
But the bill won't get past the Senate Indian Affairs Committee or the
House Resources Committee, Gover predicted. "This bill is strictly for home
consumption," he said. "She knows it can't pass, so she's just trying to
show the folks at home how tough she is on the Schaghticokes," he said.
Although Congress repudiated the termination policy in a 1994 law,
Johnson's spokesman Brian Schubert said the repudiation is not legally
binding because it's part of the findings and not the body of the law.
"If Congress has the authority to recognize a tribe, Congress has the power
to stop the recognition of a tribe, especially when the BIA process is so
flawed. In fact, one of the seven mandatory criteria for recognition is
'Neither the petitioner nor its members are the subject of congressional
legislation that has expressly terminated or forbidden the federal
relationship,'" Schubert said.
But just because Congress has the power to terminate a tribe doesn't mean
it should or would, said Judith Shapiro, a Washington, D.C. attorney who
has practiced Indian law for 20 years. Shapiro has represented more than
two dozen tribes over the years, including the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation.
"America at large tends to prefer its Indians to be quaint, not
economically or politically powerful. The critical concern is that if there
is even the beginning of a turn against tribal sovereignty, or more to the
point, a return to terminationist policy - whether it be driven by greed,
envy, racism, or any of the above, combined with plain hatefulness - it
could be a cause for other tribes to worry about their own futures,"