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Connecticut politicians wage new Indian war

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As anti-Indian feeling runs strong in Connecticut, the state's highest elected official, Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, is fueling the tension.

Blumenthal has gone all out to derail pending recognition of two Connecticut tribes, the Eastern Pequots and the Paucatuck Eastern Pequots.

His lobbying prompted the two-day BIA public meeting on their cases scheduled in Washington, D.C., Aug. 8 and 9. But apparently frustrated by the BIA's narrow focus, he announced plans for his own statewide, invitation-only, forum on American Indian issues. It would alert the state to "a time bomb that could have devastating effects," he said in a well-publicized press conference.

Blumenthal also attacked a third Connecticut tribe, the Golden Hill Paugussetts for threatening another round of land claims. Paugussett Chief Aurelius "Quiet Hawk" Piper Jr. said that out of frustration with the roadblocks to its recognition petition, the tribe might widen its claim to 700,000 acres. It has filed suits for 17,000 acres. Although no additional suits have been entered, Blumenthal said the tribe had "declared war against homeowners of the state and we will fight that battle aggressively."

Blumenthal's forum, scheduled Sept. 14, seems intended to raise issues the BIA has firmly excluded from its own public sessions. The BIA meeting will focus solely on technical assistance for the recognition process for the two Pequot bands which neighbor the Mashantucket Pequot's extremely profitable Foxwoods Resorts and Casino. The BIA agenda pointedly excluded Blumenthal's recurring themes, "fundamental defects" in the present recognition system and an alleged conflict of interest on the part of Assistant Interior Secretary Kevin Gover.

In response, Blumenthal took his attacks on Gover to the top levels of the Interior Department. On July 27 he wrote to Interior Solicitor John Leshy asking him to rescind the preliminary recognition of the Pequot bands and to take Gover off the case. As he has before, he accused Gover of conflict of interest as the former lawyer for the Golden Hill Paugussetts.

At his press conference the attorney general said he would raise the recusal issue at the BIA session, in spite of the agenda.

"My stance is not for or against Native Americans," Blumenthal said in an interview. "I'm not for or against gambling. I simply want to reform a process (tribal recognition) which can be made fairer and more efficient."

He said Piper's claim "certainly has exacerbated tensions and has raised the level of emotion and concern to a higher level."

The attorney general refused to take a stand on attacks on legitimacy of the Mashantucket Pequots, dating from publication of Jeff Benedict's, "Without Reservation." "I have not taken a position on the federal recognition that has already been awarded. His concern, he said, is with the current BIA recognition process which he called "fundamentally and fatally flawed." He called for a moratorium on new recognitions until the system is replaced.

He also distanced himself from leaders of three local communities who have been stridently anti-Pequot and denied they had a role in organizing his forum. They would be invited to speak, along with tribes, other towns and federal officials, he said.

The makeup of Blumenthal's forum is raising some eyebrows around Connecticut.

He told the press the meeting would feature Democratic Sen. George C. Jepson, majority leader, and leaders of Preston, Ledyard and North Stonington, neighbors and vocal critics of the Mashantucket Pequots and their casino.

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More moderate voices have not been invited and Alvin Penn, D-Bridgeport, warned that the forum looked like a stage for Sen. Jepson's "anti-casino agenda." Bridgeport, a possible site of the forum, is a gritty industrial port city whose leaders have said for years that a casino could pull it out of its doldrums.

One person not on the speaker list is Mayor Howard "Russ" Beetham of Montville, a community which borders the Mohegan Nation and its Mohegan Sun Casino. Beetham has acknowledged problems of living with a casino, but adds it saved a local economy highly dependent on building nuclear submarines.

"We always knew one thing in the southeast corner of the state. If the defense industry ever went away, we would be the second Appalachia of the United States," Beetham said.

"If you listen to our neighbors across the river," he said, referring to the three towns surrounding Foxwoods, "they'll never tell you one good thing."

"It's the French and Indian War out there."

Beetham said much of the tension arises from myriad problems caused by high-traffic casinos. He spoke as two local homeowners sat in his office with complaints about plaster dust from construction of the addition to the Mohegan Sun.

"These problems may not seem much to a billion-dollar casino, but they're not a small problem to the homeowner," he said.

L. Buddy Gwin, a spokesman for the Mashantucket Pequot, said local hostility was nothing new for his tribe or any tribe. "Tension has been at this level for quite some time."

But, he added, the current problem came not from the townspeople "so much as from the three local leaders" of Preston, Ledyard and North Stonington. He added that local organizations frequently turn to the Pequots for help and "it is rare for us to turn them down. We have to look at where the negative feeling is coming from."

In view of this, he said, "I think the role that the attorney general has chosen to play needs to be reassessed, at the very least."

Gwin recalled that President John F. Kennedy once said, "American Indians are the least understood and most misunderstood of all Americans."

He also quoted U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Miller in the 1886 case, U.S. vs Kagama, "The tribes owe no allegiance to the states and receive from them no protection. Because of the local ill-feeling, the people of the states where they are found are often their deadliest enemies."

Thus, Gwen said, the local hostility is nothing new and "has been at this level for quite some time."