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Eastern Pequots survive BIA and celebrate elders

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LANTERN HILL RESERVATION, Conn. – The reversal of its federal recognition last year put the Eastern Pequot Tribal Nation through something like post-traumatic stress disorder.

Personal tensions wracked the tribal council. Prominent leaders of its recent reunification handed in their resignations. A physical altercation between two tribal mainstays put one in the hospital with a heart attack. Financial backers withdrew support, and the tribal government had to vacate its off-reservation office.

But the 1,100-member tribe has survived worse disasters since European settlers came to what is now Connecticut. A family spirit prevailed at its recent annual pow wow on the rugged hill that has been its reservation since 1683.

“The idea is that we’re still alive,” said Lewis Randall, elected as tribal chairman in something of an upset at the July 22 annual meeting, the day before the pow wow.

Randall, a well-known local educator and athlete, took over from Marcia Jones Flowers, chairman of the tribe through its reunification and approval of its recognition petition, which received “positive determinations” from two federal administrations before it was brusquely overturned in September 2005.

In spite of the crushing blow from the Interior Department, tribal unity appeared to be holding firm. The tribe split into two family-based factions in the early 1970s, apparently in a struggle over a seat on the state’s newly legislated Connecticut Indian Affairs Council. The smaller group filed a separate recognition petition as the Paucatuck Eastern Pequots.

In the first round of recognition, the BIA combined the two petitions, to create a single “historic” Eastern Pequot Tribal Nation. Then, Flowers and Paucatuck matriarch Agnes Cunha presided over the delicate process of negotiating a new tribal constitution and reintegrating the membership.

Although Cunha and her son, James, resigned their leadership positions in January at the peak of the post-traumatic tensions, the recently elected council includes two former “Paucs.” Flowers told Indian Country Today that she and Agnes Cunha remain in close touch. “She’s become my best friend,” Flowers said. Randall said he planned to draw on the talents of the former leaders. “All skills will be used, and all member skills will be used,” he said.

“Their skills are immense,” he said, “and when used in a proper manner can make us even stronger. Everybody is involved.”

Randall emphasized tribal unity. “That part is just incredible,” he said. “We have our red-tailed hawk clan, and we have our turtle clan. If you can just picture it, the red-tailed hawk is up there circling and looking out, and you have the turtle on the ground making sure that things are checked out. They work together.”

Randall expressed the tribe’s bitterness over the recognition reversal. “When you have an unknown person at an interim position being told that he’s going to make the final decision, and have that kind of person just overturn two positives by two separate administrations at the federal level, now anyone in his right mind can see there had to be political maneuvering.

“That is something that’s unfair and unwarranted, and some day it will come out what happened.”

Randall specified that he referred to Acting Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs James Cason, who in a further injury sent the reversal by fax instead of giving the tribe the customary conference call. “That shows where some people are coming from,” he said. He denounced political leaders in the state, including Attorney General Richard Blumenthal and its two U.S. senators, Joseph Lieberman and Christopher Dodd, for fighting to overturn the tribe’s recognition. “Sure, they pulled it off,” he said, “but they should be ashamed of themselves.”

Randall added, however, that the new leadership was still undecided about pursuing a court appeal of the decision. “You have to decide on various approaches,” he said, “whether it’s a process of appeal that gets you into a court scenario which just drags things out longer.” He said the “time-consuming factor” was a consideration: “there’s other things we’re studying right now.”

In spite of the uncertainty, tribal morale appeared to be recovering at its July 23 pow wow. The setting graphically illustrated the stakes in federal recognition. The grassy clearing around an open fire pit, abutted by trailers occupied by returning tribal members, sat in the sharpest possible contrast to the gleaming emerald towers of the Foxwoods Casino Resort on the federally recognized Mashantucket Pequot reservation immediately to the north. The small invitation-only dance and cookout would fit in a corner of the large white tent that would be holding the Mashantucket’s Schemitzun extravaganza at the end of August less than half a mile away.

The Schemitzun grounds, in fact, served as parking for the Eastern Pequot gathering. The Mashantuckets provided several Foxwoods buses to shuttle guests over the rough dirt road to the 280-acre Eastern Pequot territory.

(The Eastern and Mashantucket, originally Western, Pequots both descend from survivors of the 1637 Pequot War and massacre. Their names derive from the original location of two bands of refugees on the eastern and western banks of the Paucatuck River. Relations continue to be close. The Mashantuckets strongly supported unification and recognition of the Easterns. An Eastern Pequot tribal councilor is the husband of a member of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Council.)

Attendance at the pow wow was lower than previous years, in part, said Flowers, because of confusion over the date. But a family atmosphere prevailed as the dances drew in the many small children there. In a highlight, practically the entire gathering joined in a Round Dance to honor the birthdays of two tribal elders: Chief Hockeo, 80, and Sebastian family matriarch Julia Sebastian, 99. Although rain delayed the start of the dancing, skies were clearing by late afternoon and guests seemed reluctant to leave. Amid the good spirits, a report circulated that the two tribal activists who had once come to blows had met and reconciled.