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 that the tribe’s fortunes may soon be improving. As the U.S. Department of the Interior 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.
The new rules were proposed in June by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. President Obama’s administration intends to improve a recognition process that tribes have criticized for years as slow, inconsistent and overly susceptible to political influence.
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.
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 gaming markets.
In Connecticut, recognition has meant an entry into lucrative gaming markets. Russell, 67, said his 100-member tribe wants its own casino but not on its 400-acre reservation ringed by the Appalachian Trail.
Supporters of the rule change say it helps to remove unfair burdens. Judith Shapiro, an attorney who has worked with several tribes on recognition bids, said some have lost out because records were lost or burned over hundreds of years, and any tribe that was still together by 1934 had overcome histories of pressure to blend in with mainstream society.
But U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal said Connecticut’s congressional delegation is united against changes that he said would have far-reaching ramifications for several towns and the entire state.
“Our hope is we can dissuade officials from proceeding with a regulatory step that would be very misguided, because it would essentially eviscerate and eliminate key criteria,” Blumenthal said.