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Shinnecock Nation an Indian tribe, federal judge rules

The Shinnecock Nation of New York is a legitimate Indian tribe, a federal judge said in a landmark decision on Monday.

In a 24-page opinion, U.S. District Judge Thomas Platt said he is entitled to recognize the Shinnecock Nation under U.S. Supreme Court precedent. He said the tribe met the standards laid out by Montoya v. US, a federal recognition case from 1901.

"A great deal of evidence corroborates this court�s conclusion that the Shinnecock Indians are in fact an Indian tribe," Platt wrote. Citing the Montoya decision, he said the Shinnecocks are a distinct Indian community with a government that occupies a territory,

The tribe, he noted, has been recognized by the state as an Indian community on a continuous basis since the 1600s. The tribe lives on a state-established reservation, one of the oldest in the United States.

"That leaves this court with a firm conviction that the [Shinnecock defendants] are correct in their position that they were an Indian Tribe not only when the first white settlers arrived in the eastern end of Long Island in 1640, but were such in 1792 when New York State enacted a law confirming that fact and that they remain an Indian tribe today," Platt said.

The decision questioned state and local officials in New York for seeking to deny the tribe's existence despite the long tribal-state relationship. "The arguments advanced by the State Attorney General and, also, by the [Southampton] Town Attorney, were and are, at best, blatantly inconsistent (to say the least)," he observed.

Shinnecock leaders hailed the decision as a major victory. "Today, the federal court issued a historic ruling acknowledging the Shinnecock Indian Nation as an Indian Tribe describing the facts of the case as, 'for the most part, undisputed' and ruling that 'the Shinnecocks clearly meet the criteria for tribal status," the tribe's board of trustees said.

The only issue that remains is whether the tribe can proceed with development on its land -- state and town officials are hoping to block a proposed casino. Platt, citing the recent decision in Sherrill v. Oneida Nation, said he would call a trial but the tribe hoped for resolution outside the litigation process.

The board said "it's time for the state of New York and the town of Southampton to stop fighting the nation and work with us to reach a comprehensive, and just solution to our claims. It is time for justice."

The ruling marks the second time in recent years that a court has recognized a tribe through principles of common law. In 2003, the Montana Supreme Court said the Little Shell Chippewa Tribe met the Montoya standards as a sovereign entity.

The courts have historically shied from making such decisions, leaving it to the Bureau of Indian Affairs to determine the validity of tribal groups. But the BIA process is time-consuming and costly -- the Shinnecocks have been waiting more than 25 years for a decision.

Unrecognized tribes can also seek federal acknowledgment through an act of Congress, although lawmakers are increasingly reluctant to go that route in deference to the BIA process.

The Shinnecock Nation filed its petition for federal recognition in 1978 and is on the BIA's "ready" list for consideration. But due to a large backload, it could be another six to seven years before the tribe gets an answer.

"That in my mind is beyond any bureaucratic mess-up," Rep. Richard Pombo (R-California), the chairman of the House Resources Committee, said at a hearing last year in which Lance Gumbs, a former Shinnecock trustee, testified.

"BIA seems to now stand for Bureaucratic Indecision Always," said Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R-Arizona), the Republican co-chair of the Congressional Native American Caucus.

Pombo has introduced bill to speed up resolution of cases like the Shinnecocs, who sought recognition before the passage of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988. The BIA and the Department of Justice, however, oppose attempts to move tribes ahead of others on the waiting list.

The federal government was a party to the Shinnecock lawsuit but withdrew with the consent of the state parties and the tribe. Platt's decision doesn't force the U.S. to include the tribe on the list of federally recognized entities.

Court Decision:
New York v. Shinnecock Nation (November 7, 2005)

Only on Indianz.Com:
Federal Recognition Database V2.0 (May 2005)

Relevant Links:
Shinnecock Nation -