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Connecticut taxes credulity

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A strange anti-Indian compulsion has taken hold of Connecticut. Even though its high-profile Democratic politicians, at least two of whom have presidential ambitions, are now trying to moderate the genie they helped set loose, schemes to hurt tribal interests keep popping up, each more bizarre than the last.

We recently reported on an attempt by some legislative leaders, Republicans in this case, to rescind state recognition of the tribes on the Connecticut Indian Affairs Council, all of which have historic roots. Now another state legislator wants to erect tollbooths at the state's two Indian casinos.

State Rep. Livvy Floren, a Republican from very upscale Greenwich, seriously proposed a blockade to extract a $10 fee from each car leaving the Mohegan Sun or Foxwoods Resort casinos. Relatively wiser heads in the State Senate shot down the idea when it went to a hearing in the joint Transportation Committee. One committee member called it "unworkable, unreasonable and laughable." The state still has bad memories of the tollbooths on its nightmarish Connecticut Thruway. Some in the legislature seemed at least dimly aware that the barriers would violate the U.S. Constitution, which reserves to Congress the power to regulate commerce among sovereign entities (specifically including Indian tribes). But the tollbooths drew a highly visible endorsement from Jeff Benedict, author of a sustained attack on the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation and now president of a group called Connecticut Alliance Against Casino Expansion.

Benedict, who appeared at a Feb. 10 press conference with Rep. Floren to push her bill, has become something of a Frankenstein's monster, given life by the rhetoric of state politicians but now off on his own uncontrollable rampage. The political leaders have been running away from him since they managed to keep him from mounting a primary fight for the Democratic nomination for Congress in the district including the state's casinos. State Attorney General Richard Blumenthal has made a career of championing the local opponents of the Pequot tribes and is still fighting a last-ditch court case against the federal recognition of the Eastern Pequots, yet he has begun to warn against anti-Indian excesses. "There is a potential danger in seeming to over-reach and perhaps discriminate," the Hartford Courant quotes him as saying. Connecticut's junior U.S. Senator, Joseph I. Lieberman, is running for the Democratic nomination for president, and the senior Senator Christopher Dodd doesn't deny that he wants to. Both of them are trying to live down their ill-fated amendment last year to suspend tribal recognition, which received only 13 votes and might have helped end the careers of some of its supporters. Dodd has made a practice since of trying to explain himself to national Indian groups.

But their flirtation with Indian-bashing has given respectability to the more extreme, and extremely false, positioning of Benedict and his following in the press. (The Wall Street Journal actually belatedly and unsuccessfully endorsed his run for Congress, mobilizing its enormous influence among the blue-collar Democratic voters of eastern Connecticut.) It's common in Connecticut to hear that the Pequots and Mohegans, let alone the Schaghticokes and Golden Hill Paugussetts, aren't "real Indians," or that the BIA under President Clinton promiscuously granted federal recognition at the behest of casino interests. The cartoonist for the Hartford Courant once depicted a head of a "Bureau of Faux-Indian Affairs" handing out federal status to petitioners of decidedly non-Indian appearance.

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The truth, of course, is exactly the opposite. The scandal of the federal recognition process is that it is an unending, almost impassable ordeal. Most of the tribes now receiving decisions got that far by suing the Branch of Acknowledgement and Research in federal court for violating federal law requiring timely bureaucratic action. All of the tribes in question have pedigrees, and in some cases reservations, going back to colonial times. Just look through the index of the Smithsonian's Handbook of North American Indians, Vol. 15 (Northeast), published in 1978.

In Benedict's book "Beyond Reservation," however, he vigorously pushed the idea that the Pequots are somehow imposters, (even though under the threat of a lawsuit by former Mashantucket Chairman Kenneth Reels, he now contents himself with saying the question "remain[s] relevant.") And he has not retracted his call to withdraw federal recognition from the Pequots. This obsession runs far beyond any legitimate concern about local traffic patterns. It is an effort to define a people and a culture out of existence. Benedict not coincidentally is Mormon, a religion with its own strange notions about the origins of American Indians. But his argument echoes a much more sinister tradition.

One of the themes of classic anti-semitism was that the Jewish population of eastern Europe was also not what it claimed to be, that instead of descending from the people of the Bible, they were medieval converts from a central Asian tribe called the Khazars. In an eerie parallel to the conduct of certain western American Indians, a few Jewish intellectuals actually embraced the idea. Yet by delegitimizing Jewish history, it prepared the way for more direct attacks. It is truly painful that Lieberman and Blumenthal, whose own people have suffered so much from this tactic, should have even the remotest association with its use against any other group.

But this does not seem to be Blumenthal's concern in backing away from Benedict and his more extreme following. The Attorney General said, and we think we paraphrase him fairly, that excessive attacks on his state's Indians might look to federal authorities like retaliation and cause them to be more sympathetic to the tribes. He was more worried about the end result of increased sympathy than he was about the unfairness of the attacks.

Thank goodness, Blumenthal might actually have a point. Senators Ben Nighthorse Campbell and Daniel Inouye have just introduced a new bill to reform the federal recognition process. It contains some interesting language on "Lack of certain evidence." If a petition suffers from gaps in the historical record, it wouldn't necessarily prevent recognition if the Assistant Interior Secretary for Indian Affairs determines that the lack of evidence was due to official acts of the federal or state government. In other words, the bill recognizes the sorry history of termination and won't penalize tribes that have suffered a deliberate near annihilation. This provision looks to us like a direct rebuke to those Connecticut legislators who want to spike federal recognition by withdrawing state status.

But this isn't the only rebuke that Indian country should give to the political leaders who fostered this poisoned atmosphere. When Dodd or Lieberman come hat in hand to Indian audiences they should be held accountable. Even further, Indian country should rethink its reflexive political support of the Democratic Party. Although there is certainly no shortage of right-wing Republican bigotry, in some cases a real threat also comes from the liberal Democratic flank. In Connecticut, for instance, the somewhat conservative Republican governor John Rowland is at least willing to acknowledge the enormous economic contribution of the tribal casinos. This is no small thing in a state now firmly gripped by an Indian-bashing frenzy.