By MICHAEL MELIA
HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) _ 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.
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 the governor and the entire Congressional delegation spoke out against the draft proposals. They argued the changes could benefit three groups that have fallen short of recognition in the past and bolster tribal claims to vast areas of fully developed land. The office of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said it was reviewing the new rules.
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.
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