The Bureau of Indian Affairs denied federal recognition to the Eastern Pequot and Schaghticoke tribes Wednesday, nearly eliminating their prospects of emulating the Mashantucket Pequots and Mohegans by opening casinos, developing their reservations and providing social benefits to members.
Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, elected officials and gambling opponents hailed the decisions as correct and final, while leaders of both tribes said they had been derailed by politics and would likely appeal in federal court.
“Today's decision is a disappointment, but is far from the end of a long struggle to confirm the heritage we know is ours,” said Eastern Pequot Tribal Chairwoman Marcia Jones Flowers at a press conference Wednesday at the tribe's community center.
Both tribes had been recognized by the BIA — the Eastern Pequots in 2002 and the Schaghticokes last year — but Department of the Interior judges “vacated” the positive decisions in May and asked the BIA to reconsider them based on appeals by the state, local towns and rival tribal groups.
The BIA said Wednesday that the Eastern Pequots did not meet two of the seven formal criteria for recognition — demonstration of continuous existence as a community and continuous political authority and influence — because they had divided into two factions in the early 1980s.
The two factions, the Eastern Pequots and Paucatuck Eastern Pequots, applied separately for recognition but were recognized as a single tribe in 2002.
“The two separate communities after the early 1980s are not the same community that existed before that time. Neither petitioner represented the entire Eastern Pequot group,” read the decision, which was signed by James E. Cason, the BIA's associate deputy secretary.
The Eastern Pequots and Schaghticokes had provided volumes of documentation to prove they existed continuously since their first contact with European colonists in the 1600s. Both had been recognized by the state and given reservation land, benefits and state supervision over the years.
In Wednesday's decisions, the BIA revoked its previous reliance on state recognition to fill in gaps in their histories. The state and towns had argued that the state recognition should not be used to fill gaps since the tribes had not had to meet formal criteria for state recognition.
Speaking from the Schaghticoke reservation in Kent, Chief Richard Velky said there was no fact-based reason to deny his tribe recognition and that the BIA singled out gaps of 10 years or less in a petition that covered more than three centuries of tribal history.
“If this is going to stop a tribe from being federally recognized, I think today the BIA has sent out a message that they are not going to recognize any more tribes,” Velky said.
Following the development of two of the world's largest casinos in southeastern Connecticut, political leaders and casino opponents had staged a concerted effort to reform the federal recognition process and stop additional tribes from becoming sovereign nations with huge gambling empires.
Blumenthal said Connecticut could “rest easier” as a result of Wednesday's decision “because it will bar a third casino and needless, unfounded land claims.” He had contended that the tribes did not meet the criteria for recognition and that wealthy gaming backers and their lobbyists were unduly influencing the process.
“Federal officials were forced into this position by our relentless and tireless battle to uphold the criteria,” he said. “The facts and the law enabled Connecticut to win this victory. We are ready for an appeal ... ”
Flowers said it was ironic that the BIA highlighted the division in its reconsidered decision, since the agency's previous decision prompted the factions to unite.
“The ... decision said we were one tribe,” Flowers said. “We began a process of healing ourselves and we came together as we were for over 350 years.”
Agnes Cunha and James Cunha, key members of the smaller faction who remain on the tribe's 14-member, unified council, sat behind Flowers during the press conference. Tribal members who had gathered to pray and wait around the tribe's sacred circle on the North Stonington reservation went to the community center on Route 2 after receiving the news. Many seemed buoyed after Chief Roy “Hockeo” Sebastian offered a blessing of hope and asked the Creator to “grant us swift and just appeal to regain our positive recognition.”
A representative of the tribe's financial backer, Eastern Capital Development, had been at the community center earlier. Headed by Southport developer David A. Rosow, ECD has provided the tribe with an estimated $12 million and is currently fending off several of the tribe's previous backers, including Donald Trump, in court. Trump had backed the smaller faction of Eastern Pequots and then sued the unified tribe after they dropped him in favor of the larger faction's backer.
Trump sent a message Wednesday through his local attorney, Robert Reardon of New London.
“He was disappointed,” Reardon said. “He felt that if the tribe had worked with him he could have had a favorable outcome for them. Donald always felt they had made a mistake when they chose another group to continue the development project.”
Reardon said he was not sure what would happen with the Trump lawsuit.
“Obviously it doesn't make a great deal of sense to continue the lawsuit if there will never be a casino,” Reardon said. He said Trump is willing to help the tribe in some way, if possible, but that he must be the tribe's exclusive backer.
The Eastern Pequots had promised the UNITE HERE hospitality industry union that they would let the union attempt to organize workers at a future casino.
“The Eastern Pequot tribal leaders and members are poorly served by this decision,” UNITE HERE President John W. Wilhelm said Wednesday. “The original decision was correct. This is a group of people who are much to be admired. Our union will continue to support them in whatever way we can, and as always we will take our lead from the tribe in terms of deciding what to do next.”
The region's two gaming tribes both sent words of condolence. Though the decisions remove the threat of a diluted market share for the operators of Foxwoods Resort Casino and Mohegan Sun, there are many close connections among members of all of the tribes.
“Today has been a very difficult day for both the Eastern Pequots and Schaghticokes,” said Bruce S. Bozsum, chairman of the Mohegan Tribe. “They are in our thoughts and prayers. We have many friends in both of those tribes and we are thinking about them and hoping to comfort them on their difficult day.”
The Mashantuckets issued a statement through their public relations department: “The Mashantucket Pequots are deeply disappointed that the United States has failed to recognize the long, governmental rights of our sister nations, the Eastern Pequots and the Schaghticokes, and that it has denied the existence of the Eastern Pequots' and the Schaghticokes' rights and abilities of self-governance, self-determination and sovereignty.”
The Eastern Pequots had spent the last three years preparing for the day they would be recognized. They formed committees to work on everything from business plans to health care. They conducted archeological digs on the reservation to uncover information about their past and prepare the grounds for construction of dwellings and community buildings. They networked in Indian Country and attended gaming shows in Las Vegas in anticipation of one day becoming casino owner/operators.
Elder tribal members like Lillian A. “Aunt Lil” Sebastian died while the tribe awaited the final decision. Sebastian had received a proclamation from Gov. M. Jodi Rell when she turned 99 in January. She died two months later. The Fourth Sunday gatherings that her family members hosted, and their continuing presence at the Lantern Hill reservation in North Stonington, had helped the tribe document its 20th-century history in its petition for federal recognition.
Lawmakers who opposed the petitioning tribes — and the growth of the state's casino industry — had introduced several bills in Congress and held hearings, but all of the proposals failed. In September 2002, U.S. Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, D-Conn., proposed a one-year moratorium on recognition decisions until the process was reformed, but the so-called “Dodd Amendment,” attached to a spending bill, was defeated 80-15 in the Senate.
North Stonington First Selectman Nicholas Mullane II said Wednesday he is “very pleased” with the BIA's findings.
“I believe they made the right decision,” Mullane said. “I think the facts, the history and the legal analysis have clearly determined that these groups do not qualify and should not be recognized.
“I think this should put an end to it. I hope so.”
Critics of the process say reform is still necessary despite the outcome in their favor.
Jeff Benedict, president of the Connecticut Alliance Against Casino Expansion, said the BIA was forced to follow the process because “so much light was shown on the process.”“Connecticut stirred up a pretty big storm and it put the BIA under a national spotlight,” Benedict said. “I think they were forced to follow the law. We've said all along that if the law is followed, these groups would not be recognized. You could sum this up by saying the rule of law ultimately trumped the power of big money.”
STAMFORD, Conn. — A federal agency has overturned decisions that recognized the Kent-based Schaghticokes and the Eastern Pequot Indian tribe in southeastern Connecticut, Attorney General Richard Blumenthal said Friday.
The decision by the Interior Board of Indian Appeals sends the issue back to the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs for reconsideration. It marked the first time the agency reversed a decision granting recognition to tribes, Blumenthal said.
“These decisions are really a complete knockout punch,” Blumenthal said. “I am absolutely elated. The recognition would have impacted our state in hugely significant and lasting ways.”
The tribes had talked of building casinos.
Blumenthal had appealed the BIA decisions granting the tribes recognition, arguing that the tribes had substantial gaps in evidence related to their social continuity and political governance.
The reversals came after Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton recently upheld the rejection of the Golden Hill Paugussett tribe’s bid for federal recognition. That decision dealt another blow to the Trumbull-based tribe’s plan to build a casino in Connecticut and its claims to hundreds of thousands of acres of land in the state.
Two other tribes
— the Mohegans and the Mashantucket Pequots — are federally recognized
and operate highly successful casinos in eastern Connecticut.
Secretary of the Interior Gale A. Norton rejected the Golden Hill Paugussett tribe's appeal Wednesday, upholding a Bureau of Indian Affairs decision not to grant the tribe federal recognition.
Norton notified the tribe in a brief letter sent via fax machine.
“After considering your Request for Reconsideration, the comments of the State of Connecticut and the Office of Federal Acknowledgment, your comments on their submissions, as well as the advice of my staff, I have decided not to refer any of the grounds alleged in your Request for Reconsideration to the Assistant Secretary for further review,” she wrote.
State officials hailed the decision, but Golden Hill Chief Quiet Hawk vowed immediately to take the case to federal court. He wondered how the Bureau of Indian Affairs could acknowledge four of Connecticut's state-recognized tribes while denying the fifth, his tribe.
said Norton refused to review the additional information the tribe
to prove it meets the seven criteria for recognition. He said so many
and inequities exist that the tribe has no choice but to turn to U.S.
“Quite frankly, we knew from the beginning that, win or lose, we were going to wind up in court,” he said. The tribe's spirits and finances are holding up, he said, though people are discouraged.
“This has been a long haul, and we have always seemed to be on the short end of the stick for reasons that we still are not understanding,” Quiet Hawk said.
The BIA denied recognition to the tribe in June 2004, saying it had failed to meet four of the seven criteria for recognition and ceased to exist as a distinct community in 1823. The tribe appealed to the Interior Board of Indian Appeals, which said it lacked jurisdiction to hear the case before referring it to Norton.
dashes the tribe's hopes of opening a casino in Bridgeport and
what Quiet Hawk has said is “critically needed” government funding for
housing, health care and education.
Gov. M. Jodi Rell issued a prepared statement after receiving a call from Norton Wednesday afternoon. Rell said justice had prevailed and the BIA “finally made the right decision.”
“This is great news for Fairfield County residents and for all of Connecticut,” Rell said. “Tribal recognition has a huge impact on the everyday lives of Connecticut residents, particularly where casino gaming is involved.”
Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, who has fought the tribe's recognition and land claims for the past decade, said he would continue to fight in federal court if necessary.
“This decision marks the end of the road for the Golden Hill Paugussetts' petition in Interior,” Blumenthal said. “Secretary of the Interior Norton's message to the Golden Hill Paugussett group is final: application denied. The tribal group fell far short of the standard for federal recognition.
“This decision is a significant victory for Connecticut and for legitimate Native American groups that meet the federal recognition criteria. If necessary, we will continue to fight this application in court, but no real issues remain.”
U.S. Rep. Rob Simmons, R-2nd District, commended the decision and called on Norton to support his bill to reform the federal recognition process.
“As I stated last year, it is critical that the seven criteria used to determine recognition be given the strength of law so that groups who fail to meet each and every requirement do not burden the federal government and courts with endless appeals,” Simmons said. “...I ask that Secretary Norton work with me and like-minded members of Congress to ensure that this critically needed step to reform the recognition process is taken this year.”
Lawmakers Meet With Gale Norton - Concerns Expressed About Tribal Recognition
April 2, 2004
By DAVID LIGHTMAN And RICK GREEN, Courant Staff Writers
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Interior Secretary Gale Norton gave
the seven members of Connecticut's congressional
delegation some hope Thursday that she's sensitive to
their concerns about tribal recognition, handing them a
two-page directive promising improvements to the
The delegation, some of whom were annoyed by a
meeting on Tuesday, were much calmer after this
"She had a hands-off approach [Tuesday]," said Rep.
Christopher Shays, R-4th District. "It's changed to, 'I need
to get involved.'"
But it was unclear whether Norton's involvement would
mean much. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, D-Conn., urged
her to continue mulling the most recent Bureau of Indian
Affairs decision recognizing the Schaghticoke Tribal
Nation of Kent. "But she said she couldn't and she
Norton refused to answer any questions after the
45-minute meeting. The state's entire seven-member
delegation was present in the Senate conference room.
It began with the secretary telling members they had a
"right to be concerned," and that she understood the
issue's importance. The tone was described as friendly,
and Norton offered her memo, written to David Anderson,
director of the BIA.
"Several members of Congress from Connecticut have
expressed their concerns regarding the department's
federal recognition process," she said in the memo.
Norton said that:
All technical assistance review letters, proposed findings,
final determinations and reconsidered decisions of
finished cases are available on CD-ROM.
The BIA has filled two vacancies at its Office of Federal
Acknowledgement, meaning three cultural
anthropologists, three historians and three genealogists
now work there.
There is now money to hire two sets of contractors - one
to specialize in Freedom of Information Act requests, and
the other to work with a computer database system, which
should help in research evaluation.
Members of the Connecticut delegation have been
concerned about making sure the BIA's criteria for
recognizing tribes are strictly followed. Norton said she
was open to making those criteria law and the delegation
said it would work with her to get legislation to do so
passed. However, Norton stopped short of saying she
supported such legislation.
"I wouldn't call it a hard commitment," Lieberman said.
Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, D-Conn., said he stressed to
Norton that "we want to have this process put into shape,
and it's not in shape now."
The delegation's members noted that no one was talking
about making improvements to the process retroactive.
The state of Connecticut is appealing the bureau's
decision to grant recognition to the Eastern Pequots. The
state also plans to appeal the January decision
recognizing the Schaghticokes. State officials, led by
Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, say BIA decisions
have been corrupted by outside influence and wealthy
investors and do not follow the agency's criteria.
The congressional delegation is especially upset about a
BIA memo that was released after the Schaghticoke
ruling. In it, staff outlined a way for the BIA to grant
recognition to the tribe even though the tribe failed to meet
criteria essential for recognition in the past.
The lawmakers did not derive much satisfaction when the
topic of reviewing the decision or the controversial memo
Dodd said, "there was an unwillingness to go back and
find some way to address the evidence."