Hank Hayes • Apr 2, 2008 at 12:00 AM

State Rep. Nathan Vaughn’s legislation to give Tennessee lawmakers authority to recognize selected Native American Indian tribes stalled Wednesday amid concerns about its legal power.

For the second straight week, Vaughn’s bill was deferred by a House State Government Subcommittee.

The central issue raised by state Rep. Ben West Jr. during the subcommittee meeting was whether the legislation would enable Indian groups to bypass state law and start gambling operations.

“If tribes are recognized by the state and recognized by the federal government through Congress, it creates a sovereign immunity for that tribe,” said West, D-Hermitage. “In doing so, that tribe is outside of the laws and rules and regulations of the state ... which leads to opening casinos and gambling, which has been done in other states.”

Vaughn, D-Kingsport, said the state of Tennessee would hold power over Indian groups, but West wanted a state attorney general’s opinion on the issue.

“In the event there is any hint within that attorney general opinion that there may be some conflict, we will pull this bill...” Vaughn promised. “We do not intend to open up any possibility for people to come in and gamble and provide alcoholic beverages beyond the control of this state.”

Vaughn, Northeast Tennessee’s first African-American state lawmaker, had introduced the bill as part of an initiative aimed at establishing a new attraction on Kingsport’s Bays Mountain.

City officials have been considering entering into an arrangement with a Yuchi Indian group to create an authentic Indian village at Bays Mountain, but the group needs state recognition to sell Indian arts and crafts.

As introduced, the bill would appoint the Confederation of Tennessee Native Tribes as the group to review recognition situations. The bill would also recognize the Yuchis and five other Cherokee groups.

A February 2007 Tennessee attorney general’s opinion said the state does have the authority to recognize Indian tribes. Such recognition, the opinion said, would help tribe members be eligible for certain benefits, like block grants for low-income energy assistance.

Vaughn said another reason the bill is needed is that the Tennessee Commission on Indian Affairs had rejected recognizing Indian groups in the state.

Valerie Ohle, the commission’s new chair, took issue with Vaughn’s assertion and said the commission has not been able to review his bill.

“At no time has the Commission of Indian Affairs ever agreed to give up its duties and responsibilities to recognition of Indians in Tennessee,” she told the subcommittee.

Two years ago, the commission initiated rulemaking for the state’s Indian recognition criteria and procedures but repealed the move, Ohle said.

Vaughn’s bill is sponsored in the Tennessee Senate by state Sen. Tim Burchett, R-Knoxville.

For more information go to www.legislature.state.tn.us and click on “Legislation.” The bill’s number is HB 3299.

For more about the Tennessee Commission of Indian Affairs go to www.state.tn.us/environment/boards/tcia.

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