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Tribes support changing feds’ recognition process

American Indians attending a hearing yesterday at the Mashpee Wampanoag community center on Cape Cod said they support the federal government’s plan to make it easier for tribes to gain federal recognition.

But the tribal representatives, from New Jersey, Virginia, Missouri, New England and elsewhere, urged the U.S. Department of the Interior to go further.

They called for setting a time limit on the review process, which can sometimes take decades.

“There’s something wrong when a process takes more than a generation to complete,” said Cedric Cromwell, chairman of the tribal council for the Mashpee Wampanoags, which won federal recognition in 2007 after a 30-year quest.

Federal recognition brings tribes increased government benefits and special privileges, including seeking commercial ventures such as building casinos and gambling facilities on sovereign lands.

Tribal leaders also strongly objected to a proposal they said effectively gives “veto power” to certain “third parties” when a tribe seeks to re-apply for recognition.

Dennis Jenkins, chairman of the Eastern Pequot Tribal Nation in Connecticut, said the provision would allow states, municipalities and other organizations that oppose tribal recognition to stand in the way of the federal decision-making process.

“It would be next to impossible for us to re-apply if this proposal goes through,” he said.

One attendee, meanwhile, suggested the proposed changes would “devalue” federal tribal recognition by setting the bar too low.

“The current process was not intended to create a tribal existence where none had existed,” said Michelle Littlefield, Taunton resident who has been an outspoken opponent of the Mashpee Wampanoags’s plan to build a $500 million resort casino in that city. “It is meant to protect the integrity of the historical Native American tribes that have an honored place in our nation’s history.”

The hearing was the last in a series of nationwide meetings on the proposal, and the only one held on the East Coast.

Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Kevin Washburn said the department believes it can make the tribal recognition process less costly and burdensome to tribes and more predictable and transparent without “sacrificing rigorousness.”

The Mashpee, who hosted the meeting, are among only 17 tribes that have been recognized by the Interior Department since the process was established 35 years ago.

The majority of the 566 federally-recognized tribes in the U.S. earned that status through an act of Congress.

The Interior Department proposes, among other things, lowering the threshold for tribes to demonstrate community and political authority.

Rather than from “first sustained contact” with non-Indians, tribes would need only to provide evidence dating back to 1934, which was the year Congress accepted the existence of tribes as political entities.

Washburn said that proposal, in particular, could help “level the playing field” among tribes.

Eastern tribes, he said, would otherwise need to provide a much more exhaustive historical record – sometimes dating as far back as 1789 – than their western counterparts.

“We’ve heard over and over that the process is broken,” Washburn said. “We’re going to do something.”

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