The Interior Department announced Thursday its long-awaited new rules for granting federal recognition to Native American tribes — but some lawmakers are already seeking changes.
Some members of Congress and officials on the state and local levels have been warily bracing for the proposed rules. Many have been worried about how far and wide they might open up new avenues for tribal casinos. They also are worried the rules might erode state tax bases and lead to new battles over historic lands.
The new rules by Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and Assistant Secretary-Indian Affairs Kevin Washburn would represent the reformation of a 35-year-old process by which the Interior officially recognizes Indian tribes.
The federal government already recognizes 566 tribes — but only 17 of those have been recognized under this 35-year-old process, which the proposal is seeking to revise.
And, in fact, the proposed changes announced Thursday keep and incorporate a key feature floated in a draft plan in June to provide recognition to a tribe that can show "community and political influence/authority from 1934 to the present," rather than from as early as 1789 under existing rules.
The change would also eliminate the need for a petitioner to demonstrate that third parties identify them as a tribe from 1900 to the present.
Specifically, the rule change relates to the "Party 83 process" under Title 25 of the Code of Federal Regulations, Procedures for Establishing That an American Indian Group Exists as an Indian Tribe.
"President Obama believes that reforming the federal acknowledgment process will strengthen our important trust relationship with Indian tribes," said Jewell in a statement.
But the fear from some lawmakers and state and local politicians was that the new language devised by the Bureau of Indian Affairs could result in federal recognition for literally hundreds of tribes that for years have struggled and failed to receive that status — and could give them all the privileges that come with such recognition.
Connecticut officials were among those who responded in a lukewarm way to Thursday's announcement. In a joint statement, Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy, Attorney General George Jepsen, U.S. Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy, and Reps. Rosa DeLauro, John Larson, Joe Courtney, Jim Himes, and Elizabeth Etsy called the proposed revisions "a step in the right direction."
"However, we believe additional changes and clarifications are necessary to ensure that Connecticut's interests are protected, and we will continue to work for their inclusion," they said.
The statement did not specify how they wanted it changed.
The Connecticut officials' reaction comes amid concerns about its potential impact on the state's current gambling agreement with the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes — which are already operating casinos there — and could further erode the state's tax base.
The Eastern Pequot of North Stonington, the Golden Hill Paugussett of Colchester and Trumbull, and the Schaghticoke of Kent are reported to be among the tribes in that state that have been fighting for years to get federal recognition.
Federal recognition establishes the U.S. government as the trustee for tribal lands and resources and makes tribal members and governments eligible for federal budget assistance and program services. In short, this means the federal authorities would protect their sovereign status, their lands and tribal property, and their rights as a dependent nation.