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Connecticut sojourn: An example of unity

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All serious observers of Indian country know how very difficult it is to heal rifts within tribes. Factions tend to lock into position when confronted with hostility; family sentiments arise, anger, pride and prejudice take hold. It becomes nearly impossible to put aside ill feelings and to let forgiveness begin.

Thus it was extremely encouraging, on a recent sojourn through Connecticut tribal communities by senior editors of Indian Country Today, to see the principle of reconciliation prevail, to hear Indian leadership put the principle of serving the people through tribal unity at the forefront of their commitment.

This was refreshingly evident at a session with the tribal leadership of the Eastern Pequot Tribal Nation, which has in recent months been able to unify after two contentious decades of antagonism that had deeply divided their people.

Last summer, after a 24-year recognition process, two rival groups within the tribe, the Paucatuck Eastern Pequots and the Eastern Pequots, who have nevertheless shared a state reservation since the 1680s, were properly recognized by the BIA. The two had sought federal recognition separately and many observers assumed that a stipulation by the BIA that they should reunite as one tribe would create an impossible obstacle for the two groups. However, tribal leaders began the highly commendable process of "working it out," and have in fact achieved that most elusive of goals: unity. The two groups have already agreed on a constitution. The task of constructing a workable government that represents all of their people is before a 14-member joint tribal council that is sharply focused on "our huge obligation of uplifting and protecting our nation."

While most people rejoiced in the positive turn of events for this once divided people, anti-Indian forces were quick to find a way to object. The main would-be spoiler: Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, who, along with three local towns and yet another Indian group, the Wiquapaug Eastern Pequots, quickly filed an appeal against the federal recognition. In a recent court brief, Blumenthal asserts that the BIA had no authority to recognize the two factions as a single tribe. The ambitious would-be politician also claims that the agency made "technical and administrative errors" in the decision.

The appeal by Blumenthal was expected. And it can be seen as an acceptable, perhaps even standard, approach. Certainly, it is in keeping with his increasingly hard-line position against tribal recognition and the growth of an Indian-operated gaming industry in Connecticut. However, when Ed Sarabia, coordinator of the Office of American Indian Affairs for the state Department of Environmental Protection, nominated the Eastern Pequot Tribal Nation to the Harvard University program, "Honoring Nations," precisely for their commendable effort to unify, the intense anti-tribal nature of the Attorney General came to light in an obvious and infantile manner. Said Blumenthal in his immediate attack on Sarabia: "This state employee has absolutely no authority to make such a nomination on behalf of the state, and we are consulting with the Governor's office as to appropriate action."

Be that as it may, the fact is that anyone at all connected to Indian country is invited to nominate tribal communities to the Harvard University program "Honoring Nations" is meant as a vehicle to recognize good practices in tribal government. It is not a major award (although it comes with a $10,000 prize), but it is a step in the right direction. Sarabia, whether as state employee or as a private citizen is well within his rights to make such a nomination.

On the other hand, Blumenthal, who was slapped down in a different case last year by the Connecticut Supreme Court for exceeding his authority as Attorney General, is quickly gaining a reputation as a "free-ranging," perhaps out of control law enforcer, said the Hartford Courant, in an editorial called, "A Warning for Mr. Blumenthal."

"In office nearly 12 years, [Blumenthal] has elevated activism to an art form, figuratively beating the ambulance to the accident almost every time. He has thousands of open cases. ? It seems there is hardly an issue of public importance raised - tribal recognition, the location of underground electric cables - which he hasn't weighed in on. An attorney who opposed him in the New Haven case said, with some justification, that Mr. Blumenthal has become 'a roving ombudsman.'"

While clearly a hostile stance to the endeavor of tribal peoples to break out of historic cycles of ignominy and dispossession, it is within reason to oppose, legitimately, tribal recognition and the potentials of tribal gaming. But to threaten a state employee for simply recognizing the obvious certainly appears coercive and many will see Attorney General Blumenthal's warning as an over-the-line approach.

We congratulate the Eastern Pequot Tribal Nation for its sophisticated and forward-thinking approach to nation-building. And we wish Attorney General Blumenthal would back off his intensely negative and virulent approach to the legitimate, humanistic and progressive hopes of his state's tribal nations. It certainly diminishes his long-running and previously stellar career and tends to unfairly tarnish the whole of Connecticut as unseemly hostile to Indian peoples.