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Shinnecocks' recognition swamped in litigation

SHINNECOCK, N.Y. - Long before the Shinnecock Indian Nation became embroiled in its lawsuits and controversy over casino plans, it was one of the first Indian nations in the country to file for federal acknowledgement in 1978 under what were then the BIA's newly established regulations.

Back then, the tribe was No. 4 on the petitioners' list to be reviewed for federal recognition. Twenty-nine years later - after a series of Kafkaesque legal roadblocks, anti-casino opposition from some of the local rich and famous homeowners with political clout in New York state, and an Office of Federal Acknowledgement that is perennially overworked, understaffed and underfunded - the Shinnecocks are No. 9 on the ''active ready-and-waiting'' list. Eight other petitions will be considered before theirs.

If the tribe has to wait another dozen years, it will have spent 40 years in the wilderness of non-recognition, tribal Chairman Lance Gumbs said.

''That's what they're telling us - that it will take another 12 years. I feel like Moses. I've sat on recognition committees over the past 30 years with so many people who have passed on and will not ever see this tribe take its rightful place,'' Gumbs said.

Recognition could come sooner, however, through a court action the tribe has filed against the Department of the Interior. In 2005, a federal judge bypassed the BIA recognition process and ruled that the state-recognized Shinnecock Indians are indeed a federal tribe.

Interior refused to accept the judge's ruling and insisted that the tribe must go through the OFA process. The tribe's lawsuit is based on the Tribe List Act of 1994, which says a tribe can be recognized by the BIA, through an act of Congress or through a district court.

''It's a matter of law. It's not a matter of interpretation, which is what the BIA is doing right now,'' Gumbs said.

Oral arguments in the case are scheduled for May.

The tribe has submitted a 15,000-page petition, but the federal recognition process is especially difficult for Eastern tribes, Gumbs said, whose contemporary descendants of pre-literate indigenous peoples are disqualified if they can't find documentary evidence proving their existence for every year since European contact - documents produced and kept by the government.

There is a missing document that plays directly into the tribe's land claim lawsuit for 3,600 acres in the wealthy East End area of Long Island.

Southampton maintains all of the historical documents dealing with the tribe's existence, but ''there's a particular document which is missing from 1859, which talks about the land transaction when they illegally took the 3,600 acres and gave us this little piece here; and how mysterious is that? That the only town record of this land transaction is missing?'' Gumbs said.

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The land claim is based on a 1703 lease between Southampton and the tribe, a coastal people of the Algonquin language group. The lawsuit charges that a group of powerful investors conspired to break the lease in 1859, sending the state Legislature a fraudulent petition from a number of Shinnecock tribesmen. Although other tribal members protested immediately, the Legislature approved the sale of 3,600 acres, leaving the tribe with the 800- and 88-acre parcels of reservation lands it holds.

In December 2006, Judge Thomas Platt rejected the tribe's land claim based on the precedent-setting City of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation of New York, in which the U.S. Supreme Court said the Oneidas had waited too long to bring land claims forward.

''He validated the fact that, yes, we do have a claim; but again using Sherrill, which seems to be the new Indian killer, he said the disruption would be too much. Sherrill talks about disruption, but it also says there should be remedies - maybe not getting the land back, but there should be monetary remedies; so we're going back and readdressed our complaint to address monetary remedies instead of actual land re-acquisitions,'' Gumbs said.

Oral arguments continue in a third lawsuit filed by the town and state to block the tribe from building a 65,000-square-foot facility that could be used for gaming on its 88-acre parcel known as the Westwood lands. The town is now claiming that the tribe is subject to local zoning laws.

''The town and state acknowledge that we own the land and that we've never paid any taxes on it in the history of taxation in New York. We've always been here; we've always had our land base. We've always maintained our tribal government. Our community is an Indian community. We have an Indian health center, a family preservation center, an Indian education program. Our Presbyterian church is one of the oldest in the country right here on the reservation. But now they're trying to say it's not aboriginal territory because we supposedly sold it in the 1600s,'' Gumps said.

The town hired freelance researcher James Lynch of Connecticut to disprove the tribe's land rights. Lynch, the darling of national anti-Indian sovereignty groups, was a featured speaker at a One Nation United convention in Washington in the fall of 2006.

Lynch testified that the Shinnecocks gave up the Westwood property as part of a 1659 restitution agreement for arson committed by a few tribal members.

Using footnotes in Lynch's own reports, the tribe's attorney, Christopher Lunding of Manhattan, showed that the researcher had selected passages from historical documents to support his arguments, but left out entire passages that supported the tribe's claims.

''When your job is to be a hired gun to find anything you can to undermine an Indian tribe, of course you're going to sit there and say stuff like that. What was most striking to me was he readily admitted this is what he does. He said he's never found any Indian claims that are worthy,'' Gumps said.

Lynch said in an e-mail that he could not comment because the issue is still in litigation.

The judge is expected to rule in March.