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Connecticut threats fail 'to grow legs'

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MASHANTUCKET, Conn. - Indian-fighters in the Nutmeg State might be running out of steam.

That's the impression gathered in an Indian Country Today tour of Connecticut's three federally recognized (or soon to be recognized) tribes. Even though attacks on the tribes, the recognition process and the perceived threat of their casinos continue with increasing shrillness, the state legislative follow-ups are dying in committees.

"They're not growing legs," said one tribal leader.

Furthermore the apparent pettiness of some anti-tribal positions is arousing an increasingly negative reaction in national public opinion and in Congress. Even the state's leading opponent of tribal recognition, State Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, has warned anti-casino activists that some of their more extreme positions are arousing a backlash of sympathy for Indians.

One of the most recent incidents, however, involves Blumenthal himself. The Attorney General is threatening unspecified action against the state's main Indian affairs official, Ed Sarabia, because Sarabia nominated the Eastern Pequot Tribal Nation for the prestigious "Honoring Nations" award. The annual program, which celebrates examples of "good governance" in American Indian Nations, is administered by the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, based in Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. It receives support from both the Ford and Rockefeller foundations.

The "Honoring Nations" staff sends out hundreds of letters requesting nominations. Sarabia, the coordinator of the Office of American Indian Affairs for the state Department of Environmental Protection, said he replied because he had just read an account of the new Eastern Pequot constitution unifying the tribe after a split of several generations.

(The two groups submitted separate recognition petitions, but the BIA gave a final positive response to the unified tribe. The two petitioners, the Eastern Pequots and the Paucuatuck Eastern Pequots, responded with arduous and delicate but ultimately successful negotiations to produce a unified Tribal Council. At a meeting of the entire council with ICT visitors, Tribal Chairwoman Marcia Jones Flowers called the unification a fulfillment of prophecies of a "Time of Healing.")

Blumenthal was much less impressed than Sarabia, and much of Indian country, by the accomplishment. He is continuing to oppose the Eastern Pequot recognition and he released a statement attacking Sarabia.

"This state employee has absolutely no authority to make such a nomination on behalf of the state," said Blumenthal. "We are consulting with the Governor's office as to appropriate action."

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Blumenthal continued with the novel argument that federal recognition of the united tribe had ended its state status. "In fact, the Historic Eastern Pequots are not a state recognized tribe. Both the governor and I will pursue our opposition to the recognition of the Historic Eastern Pequots in our appeal of the recent BIA decision now pending before the Department of the Interior."

(The title Blumenthal gave the tribe, Chairwoman Flowers has observed, is a misnomer derived from a misreading of the BIA recognition decision. The BIA identified the unified tribe as the "historic Eastern Pequots," using the lower case "h.")

Blumenthal and the three small towns in Pequot territory have appealed the recognition to the Department of Interior's Board of Indian Appeals. Both the opponents and the tribe recently filed final appeals. A spokesman for the BIA said a decision could issue any time within a year.

Blumenthal's statement in effect denying state recognition of the Eastern Pequots echoes a legislative attempt to derecognize all state tribes that now seems to be going nowhere. Connecticut gave recognition in 1973 to five historic tribes and created the Connecticut Indian Affairs Commission now administered by Sarabia. Members of the Eastern Pequots say that competition for the single commission seat for their tribe led to their internal split.

House Minority Leader Robert Ward, a Republican from upscale North Branford, recently filed a bill to reverse the tribal status and establish a new Commission on Tribal Recognition that would apply what he called the tougher federal standards. In addition to the Eastern Pequot recognition in process, two tribes in the state now have full federal recognition, the Mohegan Tribe and the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation. They also run casinos that are among the most profitable in the world.

Recent hearings on Ward's bill drew a storm of protest from state tribes seeking federal recognition. "This bill is simply the latest chapter in a shameful history," said Richard Velky, chief of the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation. "This legislation before you attempts to erase 300 years of our heritage and to strip an indigenous people of their identity."

Chief Quiet Hawk (Aurelius Piper Jr.) of the Golden Hill Paugussetts, issued a statement saying "Mr. Ward and others are willing to trash hundreds of years of Connecticut's own history in a misguided attempt to prevent another American Indian casino."

Both the Schaghticokes and the Golden Hill Paugussetts recently received negative recommendations on their petitions from the BIA's Branch of Acknowledgement and Research. They are appealing the decisions.

Their statements at the public hearing did appear to sway the House Government, Administration and Elections Committee. The committee chairman afterward told reporters it was highly unlikely he would approve the bill.

Barring a revival through a maneuver on the floor of the legislature, which is always possible, the bill appears to join another highly publicized anti-casino move in the committee graveyard. An earlier bill proposed to establish tollbooths at the exits from the two Indian casinos to collect a $10 fee. The measure, which presumably would impact the nearly 20,000 casino employees as well as their patrons, was practically laughed out of consideration at a recent legislative hearing.