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Eastern Pequot act to seal federal status

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NORTH STONINGTON, Conn. - Old rifts are healing in the Eastern Pequot tribe as it defends its new federal recognition in a hostile political climate.

After lengthy negotiations between leaders of what were formerly separate governments, the tribe, now formally the Eastern Pequot Tribal Nation, recently announced a new constitution and tribal council. The unified tribe will continue its tribal council form of government and will be led by Chairwoman Marcia Jones Flowers, previously head of the larger subgroup and a moving force for reconciliation.

The display of unity should bolster the Eastern Pequot's federal standing as Connecticut politicians pursue their appeal of last June's BIA decision to extend recognition. The tribe's new status is under attack by a bill recently reintroduced by Connecticut's two U.S. Senators that would place a moratorium on all new federal recognitions.

The Eastern Pequots are also one target of a bill in the state legislature that would rescind state recognition of all of Connecticut's tribes. (Two other tribes, the Schaghticoke Indian Nation and the Golden Hill Paugussetts, have filed acknowledgment petitions that were recently denied. The BIA recognizes the Mohegans and the Mashantucket Pequots, who both run highly successful casinos in the state's southeast corner.)

It's very, very sad how far people would go," said Eastern Pequot Chairwoman Marcia Jones Flowers in an interview with Indian Country Today.

In spite of, or because of the external hostility, the process of healing continues apace among the Eastern Pequots. The tribe was previously divided in two, the Eastern Pequots with the bulk of the population, about 1,000, led by Flowers and the Paucatuck Eastern Pequots with about 100 members led by Chairman James Cunha. The separation was often attributed to a family feud between the Cunhas and the Sebastians, who led the Eastern Pequots before the election of Flowers two years ago. Each group filed its own acknowledgment petition.

In the recognition decision last June 24, Assistant Interior Secretary - Indian Affairs Neal McCaleb determined "there is a single tribe composed of both petitioners." State Attorney General Richard Blumenthal is attacking this move as unprecedented, but McCaleb stated he had the authority to combine the groups.

Flowers concurs. She said that the historical evidence in the petitions showed conclusively they were a single tribe. (The BIA ruling said they descended from survivors of the Pequot War of 1637 who after a period of supervision were ruled by Chief Momoho and in 1683 received the Lantern Hill reservation in North Stonington from the colonial legislature. Members of both the Cunha and Sebastian families still live on Lantern Hill.)

In the euphoric aftermath of recognition, both groups buried the feud and embarked on an effort to unify their governments. But the effort took a great deal of time and talk.

"I wouldn't say it was difficult," said Flowers. "I would say it was interesting."

"We started out with 18 people that sat on both councils," she said. "We started meeting together as soon as we received the decision. It was interesting. It was just interesting getting together."

In drafting the constitution, the leaders worked from the existing Eastern Pequot framework. "We brought it to the membership," said Flowers. "The membership had other things it wanted to add."

After additional months of discussion, the document went back to both councils for approval and was finally ratified by the members of both groups.

As part of the process, said Flowers, she encouraged wide participation by setting up a large number of committees. "People thought I was crazy," she said. "But now everyone wants to be on a committee."

Most of the constitution was not very controversial, she said, but a sticking point was the distribution of council seats.

"We wanted fair representation for all," she said.

Another vexing issue outside of the constitutional process involves the role of the financial backers for the separate petitions. David Rosow, a golf course and ski resort developer from Southport, financed the Eastern Pequots and J.D. DiMatteo, a Connecticut businessman working with New York real estate mogul Donald Trump, backed the Paucatucks. The role each would play in a possible Eastern Pequot casino remains "a work in progress," Flowers said.

The new Eastern Pequot council includes the following officers: Flowers, chairwoman; Mark Sebastian, vice chairman; Ron Wolf Jackson, treasurer; James Cunha, comptroller; Gina Hogan, corresponding secretary; and Lynn Powers, recording secretary.

Other council members are Katherine Sebastian, Mary Sebastian, Agnes Cunha, Gene Young, Lewis Randall, Ashbow Sebastian, Frances Young and Joseph Perry Jr.

In announcing the constitution, Chairwoman Flowers and Chief Cunha issued a joint statement saying, "Approval of this constitution is the culmination of decades of prayer and patience, and demonstrates the strength and unity of our tribe. It also symbolizes hope for our future, as we move forward as a sovereign nation, and one of Connecticut's three federally recognized tribes."