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Badly split Nipmucs near recognition

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THOMPSON, Conn. - A granite block 8 feet long and 4 feet high marks the 4-acre park that is the state Nipmuc Indian Reservation in northeast Connecticut, just 200 yards from the Massachusetts border.

On the far side of a line of pines, a council circle faces two large wooden statues of a young Indian man and woman. Nestled in the trees is a small graveyard. Fresh flowers and a large photograph mark the resting place of an 11-year-old boy, deceased just 12 months earlier.

Another 20 yards to the west, where the ground slopes sharply to the French River, a compound of bark-covered log cabins provides temporary shelter during seasonal festivals. The rest of the time, the land is unoccupied, protected from the blue-collar suburban neighborhood that stretches to the north and south only by a "Keep Out" sign.

This is the remaining land of the Chaubunagungamaug Clan. With another small reserve in Massachusetts, owned by the Hassanamisco clan, the Nipmuc Nation controls less than 10 acres of a domain that once covered what is now central Massachusetts and corners of Connecticut and Rhode Island.

The fortunes of the Nipmucs declined sharply 325 years ago when they lost a fierce fight against the English settlers in King Phillip's War. But the 2,000 or so current members anticipate a revival as long-standing petitions for federal recognition near a decision later this year, provided, that is, the two clans can settle an angry feud.

Unlike the casino-ready Eastern Pequots and Paugussetts in southern Connecticut, the Nipmucs face remarkably little opposition from anyone but each other.

Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal is stridently fighting recognition for four Connecticut-recognized tribes. Just last week, he grabbed media time with an announcement the BIA could wait until next year to consider the Golden Hill Paugussetts. His statement included the charge the Paugussetts have gotten this far through political influence, a veiled slap at BIA chief Kevin Gover, who once worked as their lawyer and recused himself from their case.

But Blumenthal has scarcely noticed the Nipmucs, a Massachusetts-recognized tribe, even though by one estimate 45 percent of its members live in Connecticut. Local officials in Northeast Connecticut held a regional meeting to discuss possible Nipmuc land claims. But they show nothing of the hostility that surrounds the federally recognized Mashantucket Pequots and two petitioning bands of Eastern Pequots just 40 miles south.

"If you ask most people about it, they'll just shrug," said Ruth DeAmicis, a writer for the Webster (Mass.) Times, who follows the tribe closely.

The anger is reserved for the running feud between the two clan chiefs, both of whom have filed BIA petitions. Hassanamisco head William Gould, who takes the name Running River, said he filed the federal petition first on behalf of the Nipmuc Nation Tribal Council. Chaubunagungamaug Chief Edwin Morse Sr., known as Wise Owl, said he split off from Running River's case out of frustration with the slow pace.

Gould's petition claims 1,640 members for the Hassanamisco Band. Morse lists 335 members for the Chaubunagungamaug.

Each dismisses the other's group as a club or extended family, not as the full tribe. Gould and Morse even argue over whether they are related. They both say, however, that they don't want a casino and deny recent reports they plan extensive land claims.

"We're not going to come in and take anyone's home," Gould told a local reporter. "We just want a place, probably somewhere in the country, where we can live with our own health care and education."

In the meantime, other Nipmuc activists keep their heads down. Joan Luster, head of the Nipmuc Indian Association of Connecticut, calls her group "a small non-profit" concerned mainly with education and archaeological preservation. "Actually very few Nipmucs have anything to do with the internal workings," she said about tribal politics. "We don't have an elected council."

Work on recognition started in the mid-1980s, but the formal application was filed in 1995. The Chaubunagungamaug Band split off a year later.

The BIA notified Morse in a recent letter that the Bureau of Acknowledgement and Research would reach a preliminary decision on the petitions by the end of November. It wasn't known whether it would approve both, one or neither.