Will it ever end? I am talking about the State of Connecticut’s continued discrimination against state-recognized Indian Tribes when those Tribes continue to struggle to gain recognition by the U.S. Government. As some people are aware, the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs has proposed new rules to reform a federal recognition process that has long been widely seen to be completely broken and, on more than one occasion, corrupt.
Once again, Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal, Gov. Dannel Malloy and small army of elected officials insist that the federal recognition process is broken only when Connecticut Tribes manage to somehow overcome the BIA’s Byzantine complexity. When Tribes are denied federal recognition—as were the Golden Hill Paugussetts—these same people say that the process works just fine, so leave it alone.
To underscore my use of the word “discrimination,” some history is in order. In 1983, the State of Connecticut settled land claims of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe while introducing legislation in Congress that guaranteed the Pequots federal recognition. It was done with the explicit backing of elected officials in Connecticut that enabled the Mashantucket Pequots to settle their land claims, gain federal recognition and, ultimately, open the Foxwoods casino. In 1994, the State of Connecticut settled the land claims of the Mohegan Nation, which would go on to open the Mohegan Sun casino. The sky did not fall, life went on.
People often ask me whether Indian land claims are something that only happen in Connecticut. You could Google the answer, but I will save you the trouble. States like California, Washington, New Mexico, Montana, Oklahoma, Florida, New York, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Maine also have settled land claims with indigenous Tribes. So what’s with Connecticut? Here’s the language that Congress agreed upon when it helped to settle land claims in Oklahoma: “It is the policy of the United States to promote tribal self-determination and economic self-sufficiency and to encourage the resolution of disputes over historical claims through mutually agreed-to settlements between Indian Nations and the United States.”
People like Sen. Blumenthal seem to inhabit a parallel universe when it comes to the issue of tribal self-determination. Addressing the proposed BIA rule changes, he said recently that the federal government is doing something “profoundly illegal.” Those are strong words coming from a Democratic Senator in a Democratic administration. Do all Democrats think this way? Let’s look at Virginia, a state which, like Connecticut, has a rich history of Indian affairs and where Democrats are taking a lead role in assisting their tribes gain federal recognition. Sen. Tim Kaine has introduced legislation to gain federal recognition for six Indian Tribes in Virginia who have faced the same bureaucratic hurdles as have the Paugussetts. Kaine also is a strong supporter of the BIA’s proposed rules change.
The Paugussetts first applied for federal recognition in 1982, several years before Indians were allowed to open casinos. Gaming did not enter the picture, nor did it for hundreds of other Tribes nationwide. We did so because the federal government extends benefits that enable Tribes to maintain their continuity and survival going forward. Federal recognition remains our primary goal. Our second goal is to settle our land claims, as the State of Connecticut has already done with the Mashantucket Pequots and the Mohegans.
But all we get is fear mongering from elected officials who swear that all chaos will break loose if they settle our land claims. These people like to insist that land claims represent a “cloud” on homeowners’ property titles. Really? Then lift the cloud! The State has always had the power to do so, and it still does. Instead, it chooses clouds over sunlight.
In proposing the new BIA rules, the federal government is sending a message to Connecticut. Actually, two messages. The first is that it cannot continue to discriminate against certain State-recognized tribes to the benefit of others. Second, it’s time to settle Indian land claims once and for all. Until that happens, homeowners have no one to blame for “clouds” on their property titles but their own elected officials, who will continue to kick this particular can down the road for as long as they can keep getting reelected.
One more thing about casinos. Anyone who hasn’t been living in a cave knows that the gaming market in Connecticut is saturated. Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun are not exactly prospering, and Massachusetts is about to add casinos that will make things even more difficult. So don’t let anyone tell you that federal recognition will automatically mean more casinos in Connecticut. A casino isn’t a magic formula for always making money. It is a business, pure and simple. And if the market conditions are not favorable, it will fail. There are no guarantees whatsoever.
Besides, Sen. Blumenthal and others are saying they have other ways to block a third casino in Connecticut even if another State-recognized Tribe gains federal recognition. If this is true, they should stop spreading fear and blocking a BIA overhaul that has been far too long in coming. They know full well how to settle the land claims. They should do so.
Chief Quiet Hawk (Aurelius Piper Jr.) represents the Golden Hill Paugussetts.