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Connecticut Native American Affairs Commission garners support

Proposed bill is seen as a first step in reconciliation between state and tribes

HARTFORD, Conn. - A proposal to create a state Commission on Native American Affairs drew enthusiastic backing - and a bit of wariness - from members of the state's Native community and their supporters.

Legislators were largely in favor of the bill after listening to about a dozen people speak at a public hearing before the legislature's Environmental Committee March 14. The proposed bill would create an independent Commission on Native American Affairs to replace the Connecticut Indian Affairs Council, which is embedded in the state Department of Environmental Protection.

The late Irving Harris, a Schaghticoke Tribal Nation chief and Indian rights activist, was the driving force behind the creation of the CIAC during the Indian rights movement in the 1970s. But the council hasn't met since the early 1990s.

Proponents said they favor a commission that would advocate for Native residents, act as a central clearinghouse for information, cultural events and resources, and help preserve sacred sites and artifacts.

State Rep. Brendan Sharkey, who presented the proposal in January, said a commission would also help repair a ''dysfunctional'' relationship shattered by government opposition to the Eastern Pequot Tribal Nation, the Golden Hill Paugusetts and the STN's efforts to gain federal acknowledgement, which would allow them to open casinos.

The state's two federally recognized tribes - the Mohegans and the Mashantucket Pequots - own and operate the world's most profitable casinos.

Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal's battles against the three remaining unrecognized tribes are known throughout Indian country''Unfortunately, that has placed the state of Connecticut in an adversarial position in relation to its Native communities,'' Sharkey said.

Creating a commission would be ''a first step toward reconciliation with our Native relatives,'' he continued.

EPTN Chairman Lewis Randall said he applauds ''the attempt'' at reconciliation. It would help him assure the tribe's elders that the state is ''serious'' about helping them, and also to dispel some of the negativity about Connecticut, he said.

''The state of Connecticut is viewed upon by Indian country as an Indian fighter and I always have to deflect the negativity. Sovereignty and rights throughout the country are being chipped away based on some of the things that are happening in Connecticut,'' Randall said.

A comment from STN Chief Richard Velky, who did not attend the hearing, further underlined the dispute.

''Since we're in litigation with the state of Connecticut, I choose not to voice any opinion, pro or con, about the commission at this time,'' Velky told Indian Country Today.

The hearing was an eye-opener for many of the state legislators who learned that there are around 50,000 American Indian residents in the state, according to the 2003 Census. The vast majority are not members of the state's five indigenous tribes.

Some lawmakers were surprised to hear that there are Indian reservations in the state; others expressed shock that the reservations here in the wealthiest state in the country lack sewer systems, drinking water or electricity.

Bruce Miller, Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohican Indians, told lawmakers that a commission would provide all Indians with ''a place to go.''

''Each of us in our Indian communities can go to our [state] representative, but if it's not politically correct for him or the rest of his constituents, it's not a priority,'' Miller said.

One lawmaker asked if American Indians in the state can vote. Another wanted to know how much the proposed commission would cost, and still another asked if the existence of a commission would ''give Natives a stronger foothold'' in their claims before the BIA.

But most of the lawmakers voiced strong support for the proposal; and Sen. Bill Finch, D-Bridgeport, co-chair of the Environmental Committee, said not all lawmakers joined the state's opposition to the tribes.

''Some of us in Bridgeport were very supportive of the [STN] chief and felt bad for all Native Americans when the process was so obviously manipulated. I don't know if we'll ever stop the manipulation and deception we've had toward American Natives. In our recent history, it's just been more corporatized. So I'm hopeful we can do more to help. It's frustrating for many of us to see even when the government supposedly stands up for Native Americans; they still seem to get the short end of the stick,'' Finch said.

Debra Sharkey, the legislator's wife, said some of the comments illuminated the problem and highlighted the need to remove ''Indian Affairs'' from the DEP.

''I think some of the questions about perception and if we do this how will people feel, and how will it be interpreted, and are we trying to give the tribes an advantage is an example of how this population has been once again prejudiced. We're not looking at the human issues, the health issues, education, culture, traditions and advocacy. Those things are not available to this population because it's under the DEP,'' she said.

The commission would be like commissions on blacks, Latinos, women, aging and civil rights with access to resources and the ability to review and comment on proposed legislation that affects American Indians, she continued.

EPTN Vice Chairman Mark Sebastian said an independent commission would work for the tribes, not the state.

Ed Sarabia, an Alaska Native who works for the DEP as the Indian coordinator, is like the Alaskan salmon, Sebastian said.

''He has to swim against a mighty stream to help the Indians in Connecticut. He has to watch what he says,'' Sebastian said.

Doug Harris, the deputy tribal historic preservation officer of the Narragansett Indian Nation, asked that language be included in the bill to allow the Narragansetts to have ''dialogue, consultation and review'' on sites or artifacts for historic preservation.

The Environmental Committee planned to vote on the bill March 23 and then send it to additional committees for approval. If sustained, the bill will go to the General Assembly for a vote in May or June.