By Gale Courey Toensing -- Today staff
LANTERN HILL, Conn. - The Eastern Pequot Tribal Nation's traditional Fourth Sunday in July elections yielded a new vice chairman.
James Cunha, a former longtime council member who resigned 18 months ago, defeated incumbent vice chairman Mark Sebastian by 168 to 45. Sebastian had filled that seat for 19 years.
The election, which took place July 28, also returned former longtime tribal chairman Marcia Flowers to the council as a regular member.
At the tribe's pow wow the next day, a fierce summer rainstorm dampened the regalia, but not Cunha's energy as he expressed enthusiasm for his upcoming term on the council.
''It was a cleansing rain, a cleansing rain,'' Cunha said.
Cunha said that tribal members had asked him to run, ''and I think the 168 votes I got show that the tribe wanted change. I'm very enthusiastic about working with this council. I think there are some great people on the council and if we all work together, I think we can make change and big strides,'' Cunha said.
The priority is for the tribe to restore its federal acknowledgement, Cunha said.
Flowers said she hopes to pick up where she left off when she was voted off the council last year.
''I hope to continue what I did before, which is to go out in Indian country to the National Congress of American Indians and speak at United Eastern and South Tribes, and represent the tribe; and with Jimmy as vice chairman, we need to lead the tribe in the direction of getting back our recognition,'' Flowers said.
Sebastian could not be reached for comment, but The Day reported that he was gracious in defeat.
''I will hang my hat up as an Eastern Pequot leader. Jim Cunha's a good man,'' Sebastian was quoted as saying.
The Eastern Pequots and Paucatuck Eastern Pequots were federally acknowledged as one tribe in 2002. Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal and the surrounding towns appealed the final determination, which then languished at the BIA for more than two years.
After the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation received federal acknowledgement in early 2004, Blumenthal and other elected officials, including the congressional delegation, launched an intense and coordinated campaign of opposition, aided and abetted by TASK, a citizens' anti-Indian group, and its powerful, White House-connected lobbyist, Barbour, Griffith and Rogers.
In an unprecedented decision on Columbus Day in 2005, the BIA reversed both tribes' federal acknowledgements. The Schaghticoke filed an administrative procedures appeal, which is moving through a federal court.
The reversed decision was traumatic for the tribe, Cunha said.
''When our recognition was pulled away, [Marcia and I] were still on the council. It was hard for the tribe. Marcia and I wanted to lead the tribe in one way and some of the people wanted to lead it in another way. It was kind of like a tug of war,'' Cunha said.
Cunha said he opposed filing a request for an appeal, which was rejected almost immediately by the Interior Board of Indian Appeals.
''I honestly believed that going back to the BIA was not the appropriate thing to do,'' Cunha said. ''They took 27 years to give us our recognition and they took four months to take it away. And the people who looked at our petition the first time didn't look at it the second time. We're talking about a couple hundred thousand pages of documents, and they just took the state's word and pulled it off,'' he said.
Cunha finally resigned in frustration. That was 18 months ago. He decided to run for vice chairman at the urging of tribal members and after seeing that nothing had been done to restore the tribe's recognition, he said.
But that's about to change, both Cunha and Flowers said.
The tribe has a number of options, including filing an administrative procedures appeal, asking Congress to intervene, and seeking an investigation by the Interior inspector general.
Cunha said he wants to do ''all of the above. We're going to do whatever it takes. We want to go everywhere. I think Indian country is going to be surprised at some of the things we're going to bring to light that we've been sitting on and which I think we should have taken advantage of earlier,'' Cunha said.
Neither Cunha nor Flowers would detail their plans, but Flowers did provide a hint that ''the goal is to get the tribe's story out with the truth of who we are.''
Chairman Lewis Randall, who was elected to a three year term last year, said he is ready to work with Cunha , Flowers and Thomas Perry, the other new council member.
''The people spoke. I think I can get along with everyone. This reservation has survived; our people have survived. We've had changes over the years; the election is just one aspect of that. We regroup and carry on, and one thing has to remain the focus and that is getting our recognition back,'' Randall said.