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Shinnecocks gird for legal battle with Conn. group

The Shinnecock Indian Nation holds a powwow. (July

The Shinnecock Indian Nation holds a powwow. (July 8, 2007) Credit: Newsday File / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

The Shinnecock Indian Nation Thursday began mounting a legal defense against a Connecticut group attempting to derail the Southampton tribe's long-awaited federal recognition, calling the group "interlopers" whose claims were "unwarranted and unjustified."

A group called the Connecticut Coalition for Gaming Jobs said in its filing Thursday that it will object to a ruling by the Bureau of Indian Affairs granting the tribe recognized status because an outside firm funding the Shinnecocks compromises its self-governing autonomy.

The group said the tribe's financial backing by Gateway Casino Resorts of Detroit raises "significant questions about the independence" of the tribe.

The filing states the Connecticut group's members, aligned with 18,000 casino employees in the state and 9,000 residents, would suffer "irreparable harm" if the tribe's status is approved.

Mark Tilden, a lawyer for the Shinnecocks at Tilden & McCoy in Boulder, Colo., said he had not seen the filing but called it "a minor speed bump in the road to acknowledgment" for the tribe.

"We are going to swiftly and vigorously defend the nation" against the "unwarranted allegations" by "these interlopers."

The Connecticut group declined to name its members or backers. A spokesman for the Mohegan Tribe, operator of the Mohegan Sun casino in Connecticut, said it was not part of the group. A spokeswoman for Mashantucket Pequot Tribe, operator of the Foxwoods Casino Resort, didn't return a call, but a representative for the coalition also denied they were involved.

Officials with the Interior Board of Indian Appeals, to which the claim was filed, said Thursday it had received the filing and that the case will be handled by Judge Steven Linscheid.

Perhaps more significant is what a potentially formidable legal opponent to the tribe's recognition request could mean in terms of future legal hurdles if the case moves to federal court.

The tribe can file documents in the case, but it is primarily up to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which decided in favor of the tribe's recognition, to defend its decision, said Robert Miller, Indian law expert at Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, Ore.

"The Shinnecocks will just have to wait and watch," Miller said, referring to the administrative proceeding. "There is no way the tribe can stop this process from going forward, and if the interested party or the tribe do not like whatever decision the IBIA ultimately renders, then the case can go to federal court and that will add years."

Tom Shields, a spokesman for Gateway, called the effort by the Connecticut group "part of a systematic effort by the haves to keep the have-nots down and protect market share."

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