Federal recognition, which has been granted to 566 American tribes, is coveted because it brings increased health and education benefits to tribal members, in addition to land protections and opportunities for commercial development.
Tribes have been pushing for years for Congress or the Interior Department to revise the process.
“I am glad that the Department is proposing to keep its promise to fix a system that has been broken for years, leaving behind generations of abuse, waste, and broken dreams,” wrote Cedric Cromwell, chairman of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe in Massachusetts, which was recognized in 2007.
The new rules will create tensions for host communities and some recognized tribes, according to Richard Monette, a law professor and expert on American Indian tribes at the University of Wisconsin. Tribes along the Columbia River in Washington state, for instance, will be wary of a new tribe at the river’s mouth gaining recognition and cutting into their take of salmon. Tribes elsewhere fear encroachment on casino gambling markets.
“This is a big issue throughout the whole country,” Monette said.
The salmon-harvesting Muckleshoot Indian Tribe in Washington state argues the new rules seem to lower the threshold for recognition. Tribal chairwoman Virginia Cross wrote to the Interior Department that the changes, if approved, would lead to acknowledgment of groups of descendants who “have neither a history of self-government, nor a clear sense of identity.”
In Connecticut, recognition has meant an entry into lucrative gambling markets. Russell, 67, said his 100-member tribe wants its own casino but not on its 400-acre reservation ringed by the Appalachian Trail. A business consultant for the tribe, Bill Buchanan, said it has spoken with potential investors and, assuming it wins recognition, would like to swap some land, team up with one of Connecticut’s bigger cities and perhaps build a casino along a highway.