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Nation/World

August 26, 2013

US overhauls process for recognizing Indian tribes

KENT, Conn. — His tribe once controlled huge swaths of what is now New York and Connecticut, but the shrunken reservation presided over by Alan Russell today hosts little more than four mostly dilapidated homes and a pair of rattlesnake dens.

The Schaghticoke Indian Tribe leader believes its fortunes may soon be improving. As the U.S. Interior Department overhauls its rules for recognizing American Indian tribes, a nod from the federal government appears within reach, potentially bolstering its claims to surrounding land and opening the door to a tribal-owned casino.

“It’s the future generations we’re fighting for,” Russell said.

The rules floated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, intended to streamline the approval process, are seen by some as lowering the bar through changes such as one requiring that tribes demonstrate political continuity since 1934 and not “first contact” with European settlers. Across the country, the push is setting up battles with host communities and already recognized tribes who fear upheaval.

In Kent, a small Berkshires Mountains town with one of New England’s oldest covered bridges, residents have been calling the selectman’s office with their concerns. The tribe claims land including property held by the Kent School, a boarding school, and many residents put up their own money a decade ago to fight a recognition bid by another faction of the Schaghticokes.

Members of the state’s congressional delegation also have been in touch with the first selectman, Bruce Adams, who said he fears court battles over land claims and the possibility the tribe would open its own businesses as a sovereign nation within town boundaries.

“Everybody is on board that we have to do what we can to prevent this from happening,” he said.

The new rules were proposed in June by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which invited public comment at hearings over the summer in Oregon, California, Michigan, Maine and Louisiana. President Barack Obama’s administration intends to improve a recognition process that has been criticized as slow, inconsistent and overly susceptible to political influence.

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