An impassioned Shinnecock Indian Nation packed a Central Islip courthouse Wednesday in a show of force before a federal judge who ordered the U.S. Department of the Interior to respond quickly to last-minute claims that have delayed the tribe's long-awaited quest for federal recognition.
Elders in wheelchairs, infants in strollers, members in native garb, tribal leaders, the Shinnecock security team and the tribe's financial backers all attended the hearing in U.S. District Court, hopeful for an end to the 32-year-old process.
The tribe's federal recognition was to have been official Tuesday, but two groups, the Connecticut Coalition for Gaming Jobs and a splinter faction of the Montaukett Tribe, filed last-minute appeals with the Interior Department's Board of Indian Appeal, seeking to block them.
Judge Joseph F. Bianco expressed little patience with the Interior board's "open-ended" process for reviewing and ruling on claims, and gave the department a deadline, which a Shinnecock lawyer said could take years.
Bianco ordered the department to tell him by letter within 10 days "whether they are willing to either provide a final date or are committed to asking the [appeals] board to set a final date" for a ruling on the tribe's already approved status.
Meanwhile, he reopened the door for the tribe's federal court case alleging "unreasonable delay" in the federal recognition process to continue against the government. He gave the tribe until Aug. 13 to file a motion for summary judgment in the case, essentially giving it a fast track to a decision on the claims that the application, first filed in 1978, has taken too long.
Tribal leaders expressed guarded optimism.
"We're extremely happy about what happened in court today," said senior trustee Lance Gumbs. "We wanted an expedited time frame and we got that."
But he and others spoke passionately about the "deeply flawed" process that allowed practically any group to hold up a tribe's recognition for any reason. Tribal chairman Randy King said the delays have real impacts. "Our people are here. Our people are real and their issues are real," he said, referring to the tribe's desperate need for housing, health and education programs, all of which come with recognition. "They need justice."
Shinnecock security chief Tony Weeks, who appeared in court in uniform beside U.S. court officers, described the last-minute objections as "like a stab in the stomach."
"This his been such a long process, it just tears at your soul," he said, noting that his mother died before seeing recognition realized.
Trustee Gordell Wright expressed the tribe's collective exhaustion.
"We've been struggling since 1640," he said, referring to the tribe's first interactions with European settlers. "It's time for everyone to stop fighting us. It's time we get recognized. We've been patient but we're tired."
Denise Silva-Dennis, 50, said the delay means her daughter, a second-year student at the University of New Mexico Law School may lose her federal aid.
"It feels like we're pressing against this invisible wall that we can't penetrate," she said, gazing at the imposing courthouse. "We're a tenacious tribe," Silva-Dennis said. "We'll keep waiting."
Michael Malik, the managing partner of Gateway Casino Resorts, the tribe's financial backers, called the filings that seek to block the tribe's status "a farce."
"I don't know how many times this tribe needs to be recognized," he said.