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 is hopeful that its fortunes may soon be improving. As the 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 mountain 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 stae’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 that 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. The Obama administration intends to improve a recognition process that has been criticized 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.
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 would 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.
“This is a big issue throughout the whole country,” Monette said.
The salmon-harvesting Muckleshoot Indian Tribe in Washington state argues that the new rules seem to lower the threshold for recognition. Tribal Chairman 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, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D) said the state’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.
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.
The Schaghticoke reservation dates to the mid-1700s, but it has been carved up to a tenth of its original size. As recently as 1960, Russell said, the town fire department would come out to burn down homes on the reservation when tribal members died to prevent others from occupying them.
When Russell’s house burned down in 1998, however, the townspeople from across the Housatonic River helped him to rebuild. Russell, who grew up hunting and fishing on the reservation, said that if the tribe wins recognition, it can work something out with the town on the land claims.
“That’s what I want them to understand,” he said. “We’re not the enemy.”