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Shinnecocks steps away from federal recognition

Chairman of the Shinnecock Indian Nation Randy King

Chairman of the Shinnecock Indian Nation Randy King attends the NAACP Annual Convention in Manhattan. (June 15, 2009) Credit: Photo by Patrick Andrade

With the official end of the period for objections to their proposed federal status, the Shinnecock Indian Nation has begun to see light at the end of a 31-year tunnel as a final declaration looms and a world of opportunities opens to the impoverished tribe.

No party objected to their application, tribe officials and an attorney said. That effectively eliminates the need for a rebuttal comment period that is normally 60 days long.

In coming days and weeks, tribal representatives will meet with the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, which will organize a committee to work on a final determination. That determination will be handed down by George T. Skibine, the acting principal deputy assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs. A BIA spokeswoman wasn't available Monday. Skibine has previously been quoted as saying the Shinnecock's case for recognition was "very strong."

The Shinnecocks have already received a finding that proposes granting federal recognition. That opens the door to funding for numerous social programs, and grants the right to open a low-level casino on tribal land.

The tribe has been in discussions with the state in the hopes of operating one or more casinos on Long Island and in the state, though it has all but ruled out gambling on its Southampton reservation.

On Friday, tribal chairman Randy King said the Shinnecocks continue to prepare for the long-awaited status, which could come by June 21. The ruling will take effect after a 30-day publication in the Federal Register.

"It's such a gratifying thing to be able to witness this," King said.

New services such as expanded health care, education centers and expanded housing are initiatives that will benefit not only the tribe, King said, but professionals and businesses who will be needed for construction and to help staff new services.

King said a casino remains a right the tribe will have in the future, but one which it intends to keep in perspective.

"We hope to get to the table" with the state to discuss gambling, he said. "I want to get recognition-related issues covered first."

Education and cultural programs also will be expanded. One was announced last week, when the Shinnecocks unveiled an initiative to revitalize their ancestral language. It follows the formation six months ago of a strategic planning team to bring the native language back into use.

Mark Tilden, an attorney for the tribe handling its application at Tilden McCoy in Boulder, Colo., said while there have been cases where the Bureau of Indian Affairs has reversed a proposed finding in a tribe's favor, it's rare.

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