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Senate crushes Dodd's call for tribal recognition freeze


WASHINGTON ? Connecticut politicians learned what the rest of the country thinks of their campaign against tribal recognition Sept. 23 when the U.S. Senate crushed a moratorium amendment offered by Senators Christopher Dodd and Joseph Lieberman.

The state's two Democratic senators proposed an amendment to the Interior Department appropriations bill requiring that federal tribal recognition be frozen until the process is reformed.

The Senate voted 80-15 to table the moratorium. The vote essentially killed the plan and shut off further debate.

The measure was roundly denounced in floor debate by Sens. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, and Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., leaders of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. The National Congress of American Indians also mounted an urgent lobbying campaign against the moratorium.

"The Indians have waited a long time for justice and this does not bring justice to them," said Inouye, chairman of the Indian Affairs Committee, in a floor speech.

He said he found it "a bit difficult to understand why there is such resistance in the State of Connecticut to the efforts of tribes to secure federal recognition of their status that the State has recognized for years." He called for "an end to the wars on Indians."

In a letter to all the senators, NCAI President Tex G. Hall expressed strong opposition to the measure, which he said would "raise the burden of proof and create a new set of adversarial procedures for opponents ? sharply changing a process that already errs on the side of denying recognition."

"These changes would cripple the efforts of legitimate tribes who have long been involved in the federal recognition process."

Dodd offered his amendment as a response to the BIA's June recognition of the Historic Eastern Pequot Tribe in southeastern Connecticut, combining petitions from the Eastern Pequot and Paucatuck Eastern Pequot tribes. The two tribes jointly occupy the Lantern Hill Reservation in North Stonington, less than half a mile from the Foxwoods Casino Resort owned by the Mashantucket (western) Pequots. Leaders of the two tribes are currently negotiating a unified constitution and kept a low profile during the Senate debate.

Afterward, however, Eastern Pequot Chairwoman Marcia Jones Flowers said, "As a tribe that has faithfully followed the rules for over 24 years, we were dismayed by this recent effort to politicize the recognition process. To change the rules for tribes like ours who are in the final stages merely adds delay to an already lengthy process and ignores the unprecedented access to the system that has been enjoyed by interested parties to our petition for years."

Lieberman, belatedly realizing the proposal would be defeated, said during the debate that concerns about the recognition process will persist as more communities grapple with traffic, strained police and fire services, and other affects from casinos run by federally recognized tribes. Before the vote, he and Dodd had predicted their measure would pass.

"This is a problem that's not going to go away," he said. "It's going to be felt more and more around the country. Our aspiration is to find common ground (to correct it). Just by having this vote, we have significantly raised awareness of the serious flaws in the recognition process."

Dodd added, "I would strongly urge ... that we do something soon. I regret the Senate failed to act. Clearly the BIA process is out of whack, and I fear that a cloud will continue to hang over the tribal recognition process until it's fixed and confidence is restored."

Inouye, the moratorium's chief opponent, acknowledged problems in the recognition process.

Congress' investigative arm, the General Accounting Office, found in November 2001 that the BIA recognition process was marred by delays and confusion about the basis of its decision-making.

For instance, while the BIA requires tribes to meet seven criteria for recognition, it can be unclear within the agency how much evidence is necessary for a tribe to meet those criteria, the GAO said.

"It is a scandal at this time," Inouye said about the recognition process, adding that his committee is prepared to consider reforms. Dodd, Lieberman and Rep. Rob Simmons, R-Conn., whose district includes the two existing Indian casinos and the Lantern Hill reservation, all have sponsored legislation to change the process.

But Inouye and Campbell also cited the injustices suffered by Indians throughout the nation's history, whether through forced relocations that drove them from their land or broken treaties.

Inouye said there was still significant disagreement on how the recognition process is flawed, and still more on how to fix it. Tribes, for instance, complain that recognition decisions, which typically take years and can run into decades, are already too slow, and a moratorium would only exacerbate that problem, he said.

Campbell said 21 tribes and four nationwide organizations wrote to him saying they opposed the moratorium. Tabling the proposal "is the right thing to do," he said. Even though the BIA's process needs improvement, such a significant policy change shouldn't be enacted in the absence of credible proof of actual fraud, he said. Even then, it shouldn't come as an attachment to a year-end spending bill, as Dodd and Lieberman proposed, he said.

Campbell suggested that the BIA's Branch of Acknowledgment and Research be given increased funding so it could do a better and quicker job with recognition petitions.