KENT, Conn. – His tribe once controlled huge swaths of what is now New York and Connecticut, but the shrunken reservation presided over by Alan Russell today hosts little more than four mostly dilapidated homes and a pair of rattlesnake dens.

The Schaghticoke Indian Tribe leader believes its fortunes may soon be improving. As the U.S. Interior Department overhauls its rules for recognizing American Indian tribes, a nod from the federal government appears within reach, potentially bolstering its claims to surrounding land and opening the door to a tribal-owned casino.

The rules, floated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, intended to streamline the approval process, are seen by some as lowering the bar through changes such as one requiring that tribes demonstrate political continuity since 1934 and not “first contact” with European settlers. Across the country, the push is setting up battles with host communities and already recognized tribes who fear upheaval.

The new rules were proposed in June by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which invited public comment at hearings over the summer in Oregon, California, Michigan, Maine and Louisiana. The Obama administration intends to improve a recognition process that has been criticized as slow, inconsistent and overly susceptible to political influence.

Federal recognition, which has been granted to 566 American tribes, is coveted because it brings increased health and education benefits to tribal members in addition to land protections and opportunities for commercial development.