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Quest for federal recognition pits Nipmuc against Nipmuc

In bid for casino, tribe purges its membership

DANIELSON, Conn. -- Ginger Wood has always believed she was an Indian. Her people are Nipmuc. They have lived in these low hills since long before the first frontiersmen arrived in the 17th century.

Wood still believes -- even after receiving a neatly typed letter telling her she is not Nipmuc and was kicked off the official tribal rolls.

Identical letters went out during the summer to 1,073 others who, like Wood, say they are Nipmuc. In one stroke, the tribal government lopped off two-thirds of the tribe's family. The purged members, leaders say, could not prove they are who they say they are, genealogically speaking.

While few have publicly complained, Wood and her mother, Ida Hazzard of Webster, Mass., say the tribe sold them out in an attempt to open a casino.

"It's all politics," said Wood, 39. "They said I couldn't be on the rolls anymore, but I know who I am. They can't take my heritage away from me."

"I've got more Indian in me than they'll ever have," said Hazzard, who also received a letter.

The purge is rooted in the Nipmuc Nation's long quest for recognition by the federal government as a sovereign tribe. To secure that status, members must show the Bureau of Indian Affairs that all are descendents of the historical tribe, and that they continue to operate politically as a tribe.

Federal recognition is the most important hurdle the Nipmuc must clear en route to their goal of opening a large casino in central Massachusetts or northeast Connecticut. Such a designation is required before the government will allow gaming on tribal lands.

The letter removing Wood from the rolls so upset her that she buried it in one of the piles of papers stacked in her cramped house in Danielson. And though the letter stunned and hurt her, she said she never considered hiring a lawyer to challenge the tribe, even while recognizing that she may be saying goodbye to future casino income the Nipmuc could reap.

"I wash my hands of it," said Wood, whom the tribe officially recognized as a Nipmuc in 1996.

The tribal government, based in Sutton, Mass., is tightlipped about the purge. "It was difficult," council member Conrad Luster said. "You can imagine how they felt -- they were shattered."

Of the 1,074 purged, a few appeared before the tribal council in a challenge, Luster said in a brief interview at tribal headquarters.

"We explained why they were put off, and then the council upheld the decisions," he said. "The council had a reason."

No matter how much they wanted to keep the rolls intact, tribal councilors could not do so -- not if they wanted to finally achieve federal recognition, which some Nipmuc have been working toward for a quarter century. "The rules are set in Washington, not here," Luster said.

The stakes in the federal recognition process are extremely high. Although Massachusetts has recognized the Nipmuc as a tribe for hundreds of years, the federal designation would elevate the tribe to a status akin to a state. The Commonwealth would be barred from interfering with Nipmuc business on tribal land. A casino, if not a certainty, would be a lot closer to reality.

And the Nipmuc are close.

During the last go-around for recognition, the Bureau of Indian Affairs said the Nipmuc fell short on genealogy. The federal government requires present-day tribal members to trace their ancestry with a chain of birth certificates or other tangible documentary evidence back at least to the historical tribe of the 19th century.

While it does not insist on 100 percent compliance, the bureau ruled in 2001 that the Nipmuc's trace rate of only 54 percent of its members was way off the mark.

"The evidence indicates that the current membership is, to a considerable extent, the result of a deliberate recruitment effort undertaken from 1989 to 1994," the bureau wrote in its preliminary decision denying recognition. "Only 54 percent of the petitioners' members have documented descent from the historical tribe."

Since then, the tribe has retooled its petition. The tribal council entered into a partnership with Lakes Gaming Inc., a national gambling company that is spending millions in upfront expenses in hopes of eventually developing and managing a casino modeled on the successful Foxwoods Resort and Mohegan Sun casinos, both in Connecticut.

Where the previous petition listed 1,600 members, the current one is down to 526, according to Nedra Darling, spokeswoman of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The Office of Federal Recognition is sorting through thousands of pages of documents in anticipation of a final decision in May, she said.

Even with federal recognition, a Nipmuc casino is no sure bet. After recognition, a tribe intent on a casino must negotiate a "compact" with its state, even though some legal specialists contend tribes denied a compact can sue a recalcitrant state in federal court. Still, the Nipmuc say they recognize that a thumbs-up vote of the Massachusetts Legislature would pave the way to a casino by avoiding litigation.

Tribes in Connecticut and New York sweeten the deal for the states in their compact negotiations by agreeing to share with the states up to 25 percent of their gambling revenues.

William Gould, 52, a former tribal council chairman who broke with casino proponents in 2001 over what he said was too much control of tribal affairs by nontribal people, including Lakes Gaming representatives, said judging who is Nipmuc is a tricky business.

There were plenty of occasions, Gould said, when he allowed people to be added to the rolls with scant genealogical evidence -- people he remembered from his childhood as being Nipmuc, or having traveled in Nipmuc circles.

Back then, before the first Indian casino opened, being Indian was not something that one would loudly announce.

"But we knew who was native and who wasn't," he said. "You were in the same clique. If your mother ran out of milk, she borrowed some from my mother. You always knew who was and who wasn't." Gould estimated that 90 percent of the 1,600 who wound up on the Nipmuc rolls are really Native American -- most of them Nipmuc, but with many Narragansett, Mohegan, and Pequot mixed in.

"When there were ones who couldn't trace their ancestry, I kept quiet about it and let them on the rolls," he said. "When there was a problem, we said, `Hey, we know we are all Native American. We all deserve federal recognition.' "

Sean P. Murphy can be reached at smurphy@globe.com.

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