HARTFORD, Conn. - The U.S. Interior Department on Thursday announced proposed changes to the rules for granting federal recognition to American Indian tribes, revisions that could make it easier for some groups to achieve status that brings increased benefits as well as opportunities for commercial development.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs says it overhauled the rules to make tribal acknowledgment more transparent and efficient.
The changes include a new requirement that tribes demonstrate political authority since 1934, where they previously had to show continuity from "historical times." That change was first proposed in a draft last June and stirred criticism that the standards for recognition were being watered down.
Kevin Washburn, an assistant secretary with Indian Affairs, said the rules are no less rigorous. He said 1934 was chosen as a dividing line because that was the year Congress accepted the existence of tribes as political entities.
"The proposed rule would slightly modify criteria to make it more consistent with the way we've been applying the criteria in the past," Washburn said in an interview.
Gerald Gray, chairman of Montana's Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians, said the changes offer the path to recognition that his people have sought for decades.
The landless tribe of about 4,500 members has been recognized by the state of Montana since 2000, but its bid for federal recognition was rejected in 2009 partly because the tribe could not document continuity through the early part of the 20th century. Gray said that denial illustrated how the process is broken.
"For a lot of the Plains tribes, and Indians in the country as a whole, there's oral history but not a lot of written history," Gray said. "But we can prove our existence as a tribal entity and having a tribal government back to (1934)."
The newly published rules represent the first overhaul in two decades for a recognition process that has been criticized as slow, inconsistent and overly susceptible to political influence. The Interior Department held consultations on the draft proposal around the country last summer and will accept comment for at least 60 days before the rules are finalized.
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 casinos and other development projects.
Some of the strongest criticism has come from Connecticut, where elected officials have argued that the proposed changes could benefit three groups that have fallen short of recognition in the past and open the door to new casinos. Officials including Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and the state's congressional delegation said in a joint statement Thursday that changes and clarifications are necessary "to ensure that Connecticut's interests are protected."
Supporters of the rule change say it helps to remove unfair burdens. Advocates say that some tribes have been denied recognition because records were lost or burned over hundreds of years, and any tribe that was still together by 1934 had overcome histories of mistreatment.
Other changes in the new rule include:
• Eighty percent of a group's membership would have to descend from a tribe that existed in historical times. The rule currently says that membership descend from a historical tribe.
• Thirty percent of a group's membership would have to comprise a community. The rule now says a "predominant portion" of membership must comprise a community.
• Groups that have been denied recognition in the past would be allowed to submit new petitions under some circumstances. That is currently prohibited.