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Nipmucs will appeal US tribal rejection

Leaders of the state's largest group of Nipmuc Indians said yesterday the US Bureau of Indian Affairs acted unfairly and was carrying out ''an anticasino agenda" when it denied the group federal recognition as a tribe.

The group, which wants to build a casino in Central Massachusetts, announced its appeal of the bureau's decision and blasted the federal government during a news conference at the State House.

''I stand before you defeated by the United States government," said Chief Walter Vickers of the Sutton-based Hassanamisco band of the Nipmuc Nation.

Nipmuc Nation councilor Ken Hamilton called the June 18 decision ''downright disgraceful."

''It was as if they didn't even read our petition," said Hamilton, 67. ''This determination was made with an anticasino agenda. They didn't just deny us. They beat us up. They humiliated us."

A spokeswoman for the Bureau of Indian Affairs did not immediately respond to the group's remarks yesterday. But according to the Associated Press, Aurene Martin, the agency's deputy assistant secretary for Indian Affairs, said she knew of no instance in which the internal appeals board overturned a negative finding.

The Nipmuc Nation and a Dudley-based group calling itself the Nipmuck Council of Chaubunagungamaug have been attempting to gain federal recognition for nearly 25 years.

Last month, the federal bureau's decisions stated that neither group could prove it had been active politically and socially as a tribe since historic times, as required under the federal recognition standards.

Officials at the Chaubunagungamaug group's headquarters could not be reached for comment yesterday, but have said recently that they were also considering an appeal.

Unlike the Chaubunagungamaug group, the Nipmuc Nation has made no secret of its desire to build a casino and of its partnership with Lakes Entertainment, a Minneapolis-based firm that is one of the country's most successful gambling companies.

Lakes Entertainment has bankrolled the Nipmuc effort with more than $6 million in upfront costs in the hopes of becoming a partner with the group in a full-scale casino on land owned by the Nipmuc in Worcester County or across the border in Connecticut.

Guy Conrad, a longtime adviser to the Nipmucs in their quest to build a casino, said he believed the decision was fueled by politicians opposed to casinos, including several lawmakers from Connecticut who don't want other tribes to share in the riches enjoyed by the two Connecticut tribes who already run casinos.

''We've sent troops overseas to help gain the sovereignty of foreign countries while here at home we're putting up massive walls . . .to deny the same sovereignty to people in our own Commonwealth," Conrad said.

Christopher Sullivan, a lawyer for the Nipmuc Nation, said the group would file its appeal with the Interior Board of Indian Appeals by mid-September, within the 90-day window for challenging the Indian Affairs Bureau's decisions. Because the internal appeals board has never ruled against the agency, Nipmuc officials predicted that the case will eventually end up in US District Court.

Sullivan said the Nipmuc Nation and its supporters were surprised by the denial, which reversed several preliminary decisions that had appeared to go in the tribe's favor.

The bureau's recent decision also narrowed the definitions for determining who was a member of the tribe.

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