Washington – Nicholas Mullane, a longtime Republican selectman for the town of North Stonington, on Wednesday helped bolster a GOP bill that would strip the Obama administration of its authority to recognize Indian tribes.
At a hearing of the House Committee of Natural Resources, Mullane said he favors a bill introduced by Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, that would give tribes federal acknowledgement only by an act of Congress.
Mullane, who served 15 terms as his town’s first selectman, said North Stonington, together with the neighboring towns of Ledyard and Preston, “have experienced virtually all the problems” addressed in the Tribal Recognition Act of 2015.
All three towns, which surround the Foxwoods Resort Casino owned by the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, are strongly opposed to efforts by the Eastern Pequots to obtain recognition.
Bishop’s bill is the result of GOP objections to new Indian recognition rules promulgated by the Interior Department’s Bureau of Indian Affairs in June.
The countermeasure has touched off a scorching conflict between GOP lawmakers and BIA chief Kevin Washburn, who accused Republican members of the Natural Resources Committee of “statements and questioning that harkened back to the termination era.” (The so-called Termination Policy of the 1950s and 60s was a government effort to assimilate tribal nations into mainstream America by ending their special relationship with the federal government.)
On Wednesday, Democratic Rep. Raul Ruiz of California, called the Tribal Recognition Act, an attempt to demolish the authority of the BIA.
“This bill will weaken tribal self-determination and consolidate that power in the hands of a few politicians,” Ruiz said.
Under current law, both the Interior Department and Congress can recognize tribes.
Other Democrats on the panel also criticized the bill, as did Brian Patterson, president of the United South and Eastern Tribes.
“In addition to concerns related to the political process, it is essential to recognize that the United States Congress and numerous courts have repeatedly acknowledged the Secretary of the Interior’s authority to extend recognition to tribal nations,” Patterson said.
While the BIA moved to make it easier for tribes across the nation to win federal recognition, it blocked the Eastern Pequot and two other Connecticut tribes, the Golden Hill Paugusett and the Schaghticokes, from reapplying for federal acknowledgement. Connecticut public officials have been opposed to granting recognition to those tribes.
“Fortunately…Interior dropped some of the most seriously flawed elements of the proposed [new] rules,”Mullane said. “But the end result is still very troubling and shows the effect of a partisan and political agenda at Interior to facilitate the recognition of new tribes.”
In earlier drafts of the proposal, the Connecticut tribes would have been allowed to reapply for acknowledgement, but only if those who had opposed their recognition agreed.
In his written testimony, Mullane attributed the change in the final rule to “our diligent congressional delegation, our governor and the oversight of this committee.”
Gov. Dannel Malloy, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and all other federal lawmakers in the state heavily lobbied Washburn and the Interior Department to keep the Eastern Pequots, Golden Hill Paugusett and Schaghticoke from having another chance at recognition.
Connecticut state and local officials were concerned recognition of those tribes could lead to vast land claims and new Indian casinos and affect a slot machine revenue-sharing agreement between the state and the Mashantucket Pequots and Mohegans, the two federally recognized tribes with casinos in the state.
Mullane agreed with GOP lawmakers that the BIA chief does not have the authority to set Indian recognition rules. But he said he would support the pre-Washburn recognition rule, with certain changes.
“The one that Mr. Washburn put forward does not have a balance and check,” Mullane said.
Bishop asked Mullane “if there was anything that would stop a future BIA chief to change the rules again,” and allow tribes like the ones in Connecticut to seek recognition again.
Mullane replied the Tribal Recognition Act would prevent that.