Tribal Recognition Battle May Restart

New federally recognized Indian tribes in Connecticut — and the gambling casinos that can accompany them — may once again be on the horizon.

For descendants of the state's Native American tribal groups, the fight for coveted federal recognition has never ended, but many thought that with the rejection of petitions by the Eastern Pequots and Schaghticokes eight years ago, the matter was settled.

Centuries ago, Connecticut was a flourishing mix of Indian nations, but in the eyes of the federal government only two tribes persevered into the 20th century: the Mashantucket Pequots and the Mohegans, now owners and operators of, until recently, two of the most profitable Indian casinos in the land.

But now, a new draft proposal of revised tribal recognition rules by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs may provide a fast track to recognition for three more tribal groups: the Schaghticokes of Kent, the Eastern Pequots of North Stonington and the Golden Hill Paugussetts of Trumbull and Colchester. The Schaghticokes and Easterns were part of highly contentious BIA rulings a decade ago.

This new development once again will force discussion of two questions — one historical, the other political — that Connecticut has never quite resolved: Do the remaining descendants of Native Americans represent modern tribes, and just how much gambling do we want?

The proposal, which faces hearings this summer before a final proposal is offered, would create a smoother path to federal acknowledgment for tribes that have a state reservation dating to at least 1934. That all-important provision, tucked inside the recent proposal by Kevin Washburn, assistant secretary for Indian affairs at the Department of the Interior, applies specifically — and perhaps uniquely — to the three Connecticut tribes that were denied recognition during a long and contentious fight in the 1990s and 2000s.

Significantly, under the new procedures the Connecticut tribes that failed a variety of criteria in the past would only have to show genealogical descent from a historic tribe and continuity since 1934. Previously, tribes had to show they existed as a community since "first contact," which in Connecticut dates to the 1600s.

"All of Connecticut should be worried,'' said Nick Mullane, the first selectman of North Stonington.

For years, Mullane has led a fight against recognition for two factions of the Eastern Pequots, who share a reservation in his town, a neighbor of Foxwoods Resort Casino. His town has continued to hire a prominent Washington, D.C., law firm, Perkins Coie, to monitor federal recognition issues.

"It looks like the Schaghticokes and Eastern Pequots and possibly the Golden Hill Paugussetts could be administratively recognized,'' Mullane said. "It looks like it would be almost automatic."

"There could be three more reservations," he said. "It could be casinos or it could be [tax-free] enterprise zones."

After the Eastern Pequots and the Schaghticokes won preliminary recognition in 2002, top elected leaders, municipal officials and activists mounted a campaign that included aggressive lobbying to overturn the rulings.

Both tribes have long argued that hundreds of years of state recognition, including official state reservations, support their case for federal recognition. In dramatic decisions in 2005, the Department of the Interior reversed the preliminary rulings from 2002.

Specifically, the Schaghticokes and Easterns failed in two critical areas that have been critical to win federal recognition: proof that each group had existed as a tribe through the centuries, and clear evidence that there was an intact community with cultural and social interaction.

Since then, the tribes have sought, and failed, to win recognition through the courts.

Alan Russell, leader of one of two factions of the Schaghticokes and a resident of the 300-acre Kent reservation, said his group hasn't disappeared and hasn't given up.

"These are the true Schaghticokes, the historic tribe,'' Russell told me. "Are we real Indians? Of course. I know who I am and where I come from. We are the real deal and we are here."

I asked Russell whether he sees a casino along the banks of the Housatonic in bucolic Kent. "I'd like to keep it the way it is,'' he replied. "It wasn't meant to be built up."

The landscape has changed dramatically since a frenzy of casino investors — from Donald Trump to the founder of the Subway restaurants chain to one of the Koch brothers — spent millions of dollars backing tribal groups in hopes of developing the next Foxwoods or Mohegan Sun. New York, Rhode Island and Massachusetts have taken steps to grab their share of the gambling pie, with a major casino development likely in Springfield or Palmer, Mass.

When our two casinos were virtually printing money, Connecticut could make the argument that there was enough gambling. No longer. As revenues from slot machines have declined from the two existing casinos, the state has turned to more gambling. Keno will be available in bars and restaurants soon.

Meanwhile, the long and cumbersome process of tribal recognition, which has left legitimate tribal groups unrecognized and lost in a bureaucratic maze, still needs repair. The new proposal by the BIA's Washburn is another attempt to fix the process.

"The discussion draft is a starting point in the conversation with federally recognized tribes, petitioners and the public on how to ensure that the process is fair, efficient and transparent," Washburn said when he announced the new proposal last month. "We are starting with an open mind and no fixed agenda, and we're looking forward to getting input from all stakeholders before we move forward with a proposed rule that will provide additional certainty and timeliness to the process.''

The Washburn plan, which includes public hearings on Indian reservations around the country this summer, quickly drew the attention of political and business leaders who have opposed recognition — and the specter of additional casino gambling.

"These preliminary regulations that were issued are a very serious concern,'' said Joseph McGee, vice president of the Business Council of Fairfield County, which has opposed efforts to bring an Indian casino to Bridgeport. "It overturns the decision made previously that simply having a state reservation doesn't mean you are a federal tribe.

"It is really quite extraordinary and seems particularly focused on Connecticut."

U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, who fought bitter battles with the Schaghticokes, Eastern Pequots and Paugussetts over recognition when he served as state attorney general, said the new proposal won't be approved without a new fight.

"I want to make sure Connecticut's interests are protected against any efforts to circumvent existing standards and criteria for recognition,'' said Blumenthal, who had not yet seen the new proposal. "I am going to ask the BIA for a full and exacting explanation for why these changes are needed. If necessary, I will ask for [Congressional] hearings."

A final proposed rule from the Department of the Interior could be a year away. In the meantime, it appears that Connecticut's long and troubled relationship with its Indian inhabitants is far from settled.

Eight years ago, as opponents declared that the days of federal recognition were over, Richard Velky, leader of the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation faction, offered a different, and perhaps prescient, vision.

"If they claim for one second that this is going to deter this tribe, look at our history. Look at how many times they kept us off the land. You burned our homes. You stopped us from assembling," Velky said in a driving rainstorm before despondent Schaghticokes. "We are here today and we are not stopping today."

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