Shock and anger swept across the Shinnecock Indian Nation Wednesday as a group claiming to represent unspecified Connecticut gaming interests said it filed to block the Southampton tribe's long-awaited federal recognition status.
Shinnecock chairman Randy King blasted the move as a "despicable" and "blatant attempt to slow us down based on money."
The filing of an appeal, experts say, automatically stays federal recognition -- scheduled to take effect July 19 -- until the issue is decided, which could be months or years.
The group also said it was considering taking its case to federal court if the appeals process failed.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs has approved the Shinnecocks' recognition, and the tribe had been awaiting the end of a 30-day comment period when the Connecticut group Wednesday said in a news release that it had made the filing.
Calling itself the Connecticut Coalition for Gaming Jobs, the group charged the Bureau of Indian Affairs recognition process had been "hijacked by wealthy casino developers" for the Southampton tribe, which has said it plans to open one or more casinos in New York.
Saying such an effort threatens thousands of Connecticut jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue, the group said it seeks to reverse the decision by the bureau "based on the fact the tribe failed to meet . . . all the criterion for federal recognition."
Margo Ellis, a legal assistant with the Interior Board of Indian Appeals, which would rule on any filing, said it had not received the filing as of Wednesday afternoon.
Nor had it received an unrelated appeals filing by a splinter group of the Montauket Tribe. Most Montaukets, however, oppose that effort. Robert Pharaoh, chief of the Montauk-based tribe, disavowed the splinter group's efforts as not legitimate.
When it approved the Shinnecocks' recognition, the Bureau of Indian Affairs found the tribe met all seven criteria for recognition. George T. Skibine, the acting principal deputy assistant secretary for Indian affairs who approved the tribe's application, was quoted as calling the tribe's case "very strong."
Shinnecock senior tribal trustee Lance Gumbs criticized the federal process that allows appeals to derail recognition, and he had strong words for those who were behind it.
"If any Indian tribe is behind this, it's going to be considered an act of war," he said.
A spokeswoman for the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe, which operates the Foxwoods Resort Casino in Ledyard, Conn., didn't return calls seeking comment.
Matthew Hennessy, executive director of the Connecticut group, declined to name any individuals or corporations who are members, and said it would consider moving the effort to federal court if need be. Asked why it waited so long to file, he said, "This is a process people have been kicking around."
Financial harm, which the group is claiming, would gain the group "standing" to make its case before an appeals board, but the case it makes must dispute the bureau's findings that the tribe has met the recognition criteria, said Robert Miller, professor at the Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, Ore., and an expert in Indian law.
Experts said the Connecticut group's filing would hold up recognition for months or years, if it moves to federal court.
"It could easily stretch the process out a year or more," Miller said.
Matthew L.M. Fletcher, who serves as a high-court judge for Michigan tribes and is a professor at Michigan State University College of Law and director of the Indigenous Law and Policy Center, said the group's objections could tie up the tribe for two years or more if it moves to federal court.
Those who have backed the Shinnecocks' efforts were outraged by the news.
"I am appalled that Connecticut casino interests would seek to deny the Shinnecock Tribal Nation's rightful heritage with this offensive, eleventh-hour challenge," Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton) said in a statement.