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Divisions deepen in Conn. Recognitions

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WESTPORT, Conn. - Battle lines are hardening over tribal recognition in Connecticut, which is home to three tribes in the last stages of the process and also to the two most profitable Indian casinos, run by already recognized tribes.

Anti-Indian rhetoric is heating up, as state politicians appeal federal approval of the Eastern Pequot and two other petitions, from the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation and the Golden Hill Paugussetts, are due for a decision within months.

In turn state tribes are receiving support from national organizations, including the National Congress of American Indians. The debate, always bitter but now regaining energy, even has implications for the campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. The renewed controversy draws attention to recent attempts by U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., to prevent tribal recognition, even as he now campaigns for Indian votes in the Democratic presidential primaries in southwestern states.

The Eastern Pequot tribe is now waiting out an appeal to its federal recognition last year. The state government and several neighboring towns protested the positive acknowledgement to the Interior Department's Board of Indian Appeals and court appeals might follow. But the tribe is already taking its seat in national councils and at the recent NCAI national conference helped draft a resolution protesting "imminent threats to [the] inherent sovereignty" of tribes throughout New England and New York.

The tribe is pressing ahead with unification of two factions which share the state Lantern Hill reservation dating to 1683. Federal recognition in June 2002 by what was then the BIA's Branch of Acknowledgement and Research treated the two factions as part of the same tribe, and the two, the Eastern Pequots and the Paucatuck Eastern Pequots, responded with a concerted effort to heal old family wounds.

Two other state recognized tribes now waiting their turn are also drawing national support. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), one of the oldest and most prestigious of the country's civil rights groups, recently pledged help for the Golden Hill Paugussetts, based in the industrial city of Bridgeport. A resolution passed by the NAACP national board of directors promised "We will continue to support federal recognition for Native American Tribes in general, and the Golden Hill Paugussetts' federal recognition in particular, and will vigorously oppose, through legislation, public rallies and court action, any and all attempts to discriminate against Native Americans in the federal recognition process."

National civil rights leaders have supported the Golden Hill tribe for more than a decade. In 1992 Jesse Jackson joined its "war chief", the late Moon Face Bear, in defending a short-lived cigarette shop on its tiny reservation in central Connecticut.

The current Paugussett chief Quiet Hawk, Aurelius Piper Jr., attributes some of the opposition to racism, since many families in Connecticut tribes descend from inter-marriages with black freedmen dating as far back as colonial times.

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The Yale scholar Ezra Stiles noted in the late 18th century in a survey of the state's tribes that many Indian war widows took freedmen as husbands because a large portion of the men in their tribes had died defending Connecticut during the Revolution.

The Schaghticoke Tribal Nation is contending not only with state opposition but a bitter internal split. A last-minute dispute over membership rolls is being exploited by Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal in an attempt to slow a recognition decision due within two months.

Blumenthal claims that Schaghticoke Chief Richard Velky fraudulently induced a number of opponents to sign up with his application to improve its chances of BIA approval. Nine of the members of a rival Schaghticoke group repudiated their decision within days, but after a court-ordered deadline for final submission of documents to the BIA.

In the latest round, Velky filed a surprise motion supporting Blumenthal's request to let the BIA consider all the late documents. His move, said Velky, "allows us to put an end to the misinformation campaign being waged by our opponents."

After something of a lull, the campaign has certainly become more active of late. At the end of November, heads of 34 towns urged the state's congressional delegation to change the recognition process to increase their input.

And activist Jeff Benedict, arch-opponent of Connecticut tribal recognition, is hitting the road on behalf of his group, the Connecticut Alliance Against Casino Expansion. In a typical speech, delivered Dec. 4 to members of the Westport YMCA Men's Group, he attacked the BIA's "lax" recognition process, a characterization which might be disputed by tribes which have waited more than two decades for action on their petitions.

He called for stripping the BIA of the power to grant tribes federal status and for revision of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988.

"Both of these tools are fingertips away from Congress' reach," he said.

Benedict added that Congress probably wouldn't act because nobody wanted to touch the casinos. But he predicted a change in his lifetime, because "people will get so fed up with the negative quality of life issues that arise from them."