Nipmuc Nation 'disappointed' by federal recognition delay

Jim Adams
9/30/03

SUTTON, Mass. - New delay in recognition action leaves the Nipmuc Nation "disappointed" but still optimistic, Chairman Walter Vickers told Indian Country Today after receiving notice of the postponed deadline from the BIA's Office of Federal Acknowledgement (OFA).

The Massachusetts tribe's application for federal recognition will have to wait another seven months while OFA focuses on the petition of the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation, federal officers said in a letter released by the tribe on Sept. 17. OFA's new deadline for the Nipmuc petitions will be May 1, 2004.

"We had not anticipated that long of an extension," said Vickers.

A delegation from the tribe has scheduled a meeting Oct. 10 with OFA, Vickers said. "We want to find out exactly what's going on," he said about the last-minute deferment of a decision that was originally due in 1997 and that appeared to have been made in the tribe's favor in January 2001.

"We have done absolutely everything humanly possible to help the federal government meet its own deadlines throughout this arduous and exacting process," said a statement from the Nipmuc Nation Tribal Council. "Now our members have been disappointed once again.

"More important, however, is the fact that we remain confident of the positive final determination that will bring our people the sovereign self-sufficiency providing improved quality of life for generations to come."

Vickers learned of the delay in a Sept. 16 letter from R. Lee Fleming, director of OFA, the former Branch of Acknowledgement and Research. A decision on petitions from the Nipmuc Nation and the rival Webster/Dudley Band of Chaubunagungamaug Nipmuck Indians was due Sept. 26 under a previous extension requested by OFA.

In the last days of the Clinton Administration, the BIA had given preliminary recognition to the Nipmuc Nation while turning down the Chaubunagungamaug band. Incoming Bush White House officials suspended the decision, and BIA head Neal McCaleb later reversed it. A voluminous new submission by the Nipmucs raised hopes that the impending decision would be positive. But OFA cited the new material, which it called "by far larger than ordinary" as one reason for the delay.

The office also complained that since the BIA reorganization memo took effect July 27, it has been "physically moving its offices to the South Interior Building, which was not anticipated when the schedule was established."

Wrote Fleming, "This physical move of offices and all Federal acknowledgement petitions and documents have absorbed substantial time on the part of team members, one of whom has had the lead in move preparations."

OFA also invoked a court-approved schedule for its work on the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation petition. Fleming said the office would begin work on the Schaghticoke final determination on Sept. 29, toward a release date of Jan. 29.

Under this plan, he wrote, the office would continue "work on the Nipmuc(k) as time and resources allow" and issue final determination on their two petitions on May 1, 2004.

A Nipmuc spokesman observed that OFA's BAR predecessor had previously cited its work on the Nipmucs as a reason for delaying the Schaghticoke decision.

Schaghticoke Indians have also submitted rival petitions. Residents of its hillside 480-acre state reservation in Kent, Conn., rejected the leadership of Schaghticoke Tribal Nation leader Richard Velky and have even obtained a court injunction effectively barring him from the reservation.

Unlike the Connecticut petitioners, the Nipmucs have support from leading politicians in their state. Both of the U.S. Senators from Massachusetts, Edward Kennedy and John Kerry, have spoken for their recognition, and Vickers said that Kennedy had promised to write another letter calling for a speedy decision.

"They're all pulling for us," Vickers said.

By contrast, Connecticut state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal opposes Nipmuc recognition, citing the possibility the tribe could locate a casino on the Connecticut border or in its northeast corner. Both U.S. Senators from Connecticut, Christopher Dodd and Joseph I. Lieberman, have sponsored Congressional measures to suspend all tribal recognitions.

Vickers acknowledged that a large share of the cost of the application was born by the tribe's financial backer, Lakes Gaming Inc., a Minnesota-based casino management company run by Lyle Berman. Earlier in the process, the tribe also received a loan from the Sault Ste. Marie tribe of Chippewa Indians, although according to a Sault Ste. Marie tribe spokesman, the connection ended in 1999.

Vickers said the expense of the process had not yet reached the $10 million mark set by Connecticut applications, "but it's leading there."

"It's been costly," he said.

The Nipmuc Nation, according to its official statement, "was one of the original people of the northeast, with aboriginal lands stretching from southern New Hampshire to Springfield, Mass. and into Rhode Island and Connecticut."

It first filed its recognition petition, numbered 69A, in 1980. The BIA placed it on "active status" in 1996, "meaning a final determination was first due in 1997."

"I've been working at this for 30 years," said Vickers. "I'm disappointed."

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