Connecticut political establishment at odds with tribes

Washington – The state’s political establishment is lining up to oppose the latest efforts to grant federal recognition to three Connecticut Indian tribes, with Gov. Dannel Malloy the latest to say he’s against the move.

“The governor shares the concerns of Connecticut’s federal delegation and the Attorney General regarding the potential impact of the proposed BIA tribal recognition regulations,” Andrew Doba, Malloy’s communications director, said this week, referring to the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The current standoff between three Connecticut tribes -- the Eastern Pequots of North Stonington, the Golden Hill Paugussetts of Colchester and Trumbull, and the Schaghticokes of Kent – and federal, state and local officials will be decided in Washington, by the BIA, which is considering easing the rules of federal recognition of tribes.

Kevin Washburn, a member of Oklahoma’s Chicasaw Nation who was confirmed head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in September, has made reform of recognition procedures a priority. He says it’s necessary “to ensure that the process is fair, efficient and transparent.”

But to Connecticut’s political establishment, Washburn has awakened old animosities and grievances that will roil the state.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who as Connecticut’s attorney general fought earlier tribal recognition efforts, is leading the fight against the BIA head's recent efforts to ease the rules about recognition. He called Washburn’s decision to ease recognition requirements “inexplicable and badly advised.”

“Why reopen this very acrimonious and painful chapter of Connecticut and tribal history when we have come to a place of peace and understanding?” Blumenthal asked.

To Blumenthal, what Washburn has proposed would “lower the bar” to a point that “would have huge ramifications” in the state.

Opponents of changing the federal recognition rules fear it could lead to the establishment of new tribal nations in Connecticut and the taking of thousands of acres of land under Indian claim into trust. The property includes land owned by the prestigious Kent School and Connecticut Light & Power in Kent; some is in downtown Bridgeport; and there are large swaths in the Naugatuck and Housatonic valleys. 

Land taken into trust by the Interior Department would be off-limits to state and local authorities for tax purposes.

The creation of new federally recognized Indian nations in the state could also open the door to new casinos. This could affect the state's agreement with the only two Connecticut tribes that have gained federal recognition, the Mashantucket Pequots and the Mohegans.

After the Mashantucket Pequots gained recognition in 1983 and the Mohegans in 1994, the tribes promptly moved to open casinos. In their struggle with Gov. Lowell P. Weicker to offer slot machines in those casinos, the tribes agreed to give the state 25 percent of their net revenue from their video slot operations.

Connecticut expects to earn more than $285 million in Indian gaming revenues this year. But as it’s written now, the revenue-sharing agreement would be null and void if another casino opens in the state.

Jaclyn Falkowski, spokeswoman for Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen, said, “the consequences (of new tribal nations) for Connecticut cities and towns and Connecticut taxpayers could be very significant, and the state would likely be required to renegotiate the established compacts with the state’s two federally recognized tribes should additional gambling, including new casinos, be established.”

The entire Connecticut congressional delegation agrees.

“Lowering the standards for the federal recognition process in Connecticut and in dozens of other states across the country just does not make sense,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn. “This is a troubling proposal, and the BIA should reverse course immediately.”

But it’s Blumenthal who has drawn the most fire from Indian-right advocates. The senator’s actions were described as an “anti-Indian” campaign by the widely read Indian Country news website.

The senator and his allies have already had one important win. The BIA this week agreed to their request that the public comment period on the proposed changes be extended. The old deadline was Friday, Aug. 16. The new deadline is Sept. 25.

Among the proposed changes causing furor is the elimination of a requirement that a tribe has maintained continuous cultural community and political authority since Colonial times. The BIA’s proposal would change that date to 1934.

The Schaghticoke tribe lost its bid for recognition in 2008 because it could not prove it had maintained a continuous community since the days Connecticut was settled by Europeans.

The BIA also proposes to eliminate a requirement that outsiders have identified the group as Indian since 1900, and to streamline the processes to apply for recognition and take land into trust. The BIA proposals are only a “discussion draft” that Blumenthal calls a “trial balloon” ahead of substantive BIA action.

But Connecticut’s local officials, who have participated in conference calls and a meeting in Hartford last month with congressional staffers on the issue, are on high alert.

“We could end up with a sovereign nation across the river from us,” Kent First Selectman Bruce Adams said of the Schaghticoke tribe.

Then there’s the prospect of a new casino. “The ‘C word’ has always been tossed around,” Adams said.

Richard Velky, chief of the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation, said in an emailed press release to The Mirror, "We are grateful for the opportunity afforded us by the [BIA] to present STN's case for re-recogntion at the comment session which took place on July 31st in Maine.

"This is a proud time for me, my tribal members, and for all tribal nations across America. It is with the greatest respect and honor that I took part in a process that grew out of an Executive Order [by the president] to the BIA and I will be forever grateful that the voice of our Nation's people was heard. We look forward to this process bringing clarity regarding the Federal acknowledgement process."

Tribal representatives for the Eastern Pequots and the Golden Hill Paugussetts did not return numerous phone calls and emails seeking comment.

In previous arguments to the BIA, the tribes have said they are no different than those who have achieved federal recognition, including the Mashantucket Pequots and the Mohegans.

Chuck Bunnell, chief of staff for external affairs for the Mohegans, said his tribe is trying to determine the impact of the proposed changes. He said the Mohegans support Indian efforts for recognition, but only if proper criteria are met.

“We’re still trying to understand what prompted the (BIA’s proposal) and could the changes have repercussions,” Bunnell said.

The tribes that could be helped by the BIA action have a long history in the state.

The Eastern Pequots and the Mashantucket Pequots were once a single tribe that fought English settlers, and lost. They were split up and assigned to the supervision of other Native Americans who were English allies, the Mohegan and Narragansett.

The Eastern Pequots eventually escaped from the Narragansett and returned to their traditional territory in what is now southeastern Connecticut, where they were given a reservation on Lantern Hill in North Stonington in 1683.

The tribe received federal recognition in 2002. But, under pressure from federal lawmakers and other gaming tribes, the BIA revoked that recognition in 2005.

The Schaghticokes are a coalition of the remnants of several New York and New England tribes that have a reservation in Kent and received federal recognition in 2004. But like the Eastern Pequots, the Schaghticokes lost that designation in 2005.

The Golden Hill Paugussetts have a quarter-acre reservation in Fairfield County, the smallest Indian reservation in the United States. They say most of their land was taken from them by settlers and they have claim on 80 acres in downtown Bridgeport.

On the tribe’s website, Chief Aurelius H. Piper Jr. said the Golden Hill Paugussetts have tried to achieve federal recognition since the 1970s.

“To us, federal recognition means the salvation of our tribal members and our culture via health care, education and housing, grants which are available to federally recognized tribes,” Piper said.

“It was not until later that ‘gaming’ became an issue. Each time we have sought what is legally ours we have been pushed away from our efforts.”

 

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