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Casinos a sticking point in Connecticut tribes' recognition

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SUTTON, Mass. - Three tribes close to gaining federal recognition are experiencing the perils of saying the "C-word" - casino.

Leaders of the Nipmucs, the Eastern Pequots and the Paucatuck Eastern Pequots, and their financial backers, are caught in a very public dilemma between worry about closing on much-delayed recognition and desire for a smooth start to development plans.

The Nipmuc Nation Tribal Council voted to remove veteran Chairman Bill Gould Sr. in an emergency meeting after he told a local radio talk show his tribe had the potential right to build casinos in three states. The BIA issued a proposed finding of recognition for the Sutton-based Nipmucs in the last hours of the Clinton administration, but the incoming Bush White House put the order on hold.

The council represents the Hassanamisco Band of a tribe whose ancestors controlled northern Rhode Island, northeastern Connecticut and much of central Massachusetts. It is anxiously awaiting the end of the White House hold, which would let the BIA publish its preliminary recognition in the Federal Register and start the six-month comment period.

The Eastern Pequots, entering the second year of the comment period on the BIA's proposed approval, fend off critics of their decision to discuss casino plans. Their economic adviser and backer, David Rosow, a developer of ski resorts and golf courses, met with local press recently when rumors began to circulate that the tribe was considering buying a large state pier in the port of New London.

The story started strong local debate, drawing support from some town officials and opposition from preservationists. Some of the harshest words, however, came from James A. Cunha Jr., chief of the closely related Paucatuck Eastern Pequots, whose recognition petition is moving in tandem with the Easterns.

Speaking after the BIA extended the comment period for both Pequot tribes by another two months, Cunha said, "It is not only ridiculous to be making such plans, it is ludicrous to be making public pronouncements about such things.

"Our single focus at this time is gaining federal recognition, and any discussion of development plans would be pure speculation because an unknown number of additional delays are expected."

Mary Sebastian, chairman of the Eastern Pequots, retorted, "It's not premature to explore economic development options with willing communities. These partnerships need a lot of preliminary consideration. We want to do it right."

Gould, the former Nipmuc chairman also known as Running River, defended his comments on the radio talk show. "We should start talking now about 'if we were to do something, this is what we would do.' Now is the time to plan.

"You light a fire and then you can hear what the people are saying."

The rest of the Nipmuc council strongly disagreed, voting 7-0 with two abstentions to remove Gould in a March 22 meeting called on two hours notice. Referring to newspaper coverage that morning of Gould's statements, the council said through its executive assistant Pat Garwood that it "regrets any unnecessary concern caused by comments made in the article."

In a January statement following a preliminary OK from the BIA, the Nipmucs said, "The nation has not finalized a position yet regarding potential future gaming. It intends first to complete all activities necessary regarding federal recognition itself."

Even though the Nipmucs officially duck a stand on a casino, a marketing consultant in their employ, Guy Conrad, says they are "keeping all their options open." The tribe drafted a bill now before the Massachusetts Legislature that spells out a gaming compact. Conrad said the council wanted to put the regulatory framework in place before the political cycle in the state caused further delays.

"Whether anything happens depends on eight million factors," he said.

But benefits of a casino loom large in many minds. Nipmuc council member Lois Morningstar Boyd drew on her experience as an employee of the Mashantucket Pequots' Foxwoods casino when she testified in March in support of the Massachusetts bill.

"I saw directly what it did for their people," she said, referring to Mashantucket programs for education, medical care and housing. "Our children, our grandchildren, our great-grandchildren all deserve what they were able to do."