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Eastern Pequots vote to appoint 'ambassadors' and pursue justice

NEW LONDON, Conn. - The Eastern Pequot Tribal Nation council has voted to appoint two former chairmen as liaisons and goodwill ambassadors while the tribe pursues ways to regain its federal acknowledgement.

Marcia Flowers and Agnes Cunha, who have served more than five decades combined as tribal council members and leaders, will assist and advise the council on public issues, inter-tribal relationships, political initiatives and act as tribal representatives in Indian country.

Cunha and Flowers' appointments come after months of silence as the tribe continued to recover from the Interior Department's traumatic blow on Columbus Day 2005, when Associate Deputy Secretary James Cason faxed the tribe a notice that its federal acknowledgement had been rescinded.

The tribe is planning its next steps in righting what it believes was a corrupt process of political influence that took away the tribe's rightful federal status, said Lewis Randall, tribal council chairman.

''We have been quiet, but once we come out, we want to have all our facts in place. The objective is to make sure all of our ideas and initiatives are coordinated as a collective. The tribe has always taken the high road, but if it happens our legislators and congressional group are tainted and it can be shown, I would want it out there,'' Randall said.

Randall, a well-known local educator and athlete, took over the chairmanship from Flowers last July. Flowers chaired the council during the approval of its recognition petition, which received ''positive determinations'' from both the Clinton and Bush administrations before it was overturned after languishing in the Interior Board of Indian Appeals for three years.

The Eastern Pequots and the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation's federal status were reversed on the same day. Both tribes' petitions for federal recognition were fiercely opposed by state, local and congressional officials, led by Attorney General Richard Blumenthal. The STN has appealed the decision, alleging that the reversal was a violation of the tribe's due process rights and the product of unlawful political influence and congressional interference. Interior and its officials are named as defendants.

Randall said that recent revelations in the STN appeal have opened a path for the Eastern Pequots to pursue the restoration of their federal status. This includes a statement from former Interior Secretary Gale Norton about a meeting in the office of Rep. Chris Shay, R-Conn., in which Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., threatened to go to the White House and have her fired if she did not reverse the STN's federal acknowledgment.

The tribe is exploring the possibility of asking Interior's inspector general, Earl Devaney, to launch an investigation of the process that led to the reversal of the tribe's federal acknowledgement. Randall declined to elaborate on the plans.

The most important thing, Randall stressed, is that the tribe has come through the most trying times with its cohesiveness in place.

Like any number of tribes, the 1,100-member Eastern Pequots experienced a family feud that split into factions in a power struggle over land and leadership that led the smaller group to file a separate recognition petition.

But the BIA recognized the factions as the single historic Eastern Pequot Tribal Nation and acknowledged it as such. Flowers and Cunha then led the factions through the sensitive path of reconciliation and negotiating a new tribal constitution. The two women became best friends in the process.

''After our disagreements within the tribe, we still emerge the same tribe. Agnes and I are here to represent that. We are two former chairmen of the two 'factions' and we're still active, working with the council. And we'll assist the council and, hopefully, keep our membership going strong,'' Flowers said.

The tribe lost its financial backer when federal acknowledgement was taken away. One of the women's tasks is to seek both moral and financial support from Indian country.

''Agnes and I want to go out there in Indian country and get the support of Indian country, ask for financial help from our New England Indian neighbors and generate goodwill in going out there and seeing how much our brothers and sisters want to assist us. Our job is relationships,'' Flowers said.

They will also coordinate press conferences and publicize the tribe's activities such as its involvement in health projects, family development services and cultural events.

As with most tribal people, history is a continuum. Cunha, who has been involved with tribal issues since she was a child, is like an archive of Eastern Pequot institutional memory and tradition. She talked of the Pequots leading the Indians during the opening of Mount Hope Bridge, of her grandfather being one of the founders of the American Indian Federation and his participation in the opening of the Mohegans' Tantaquideon Museum. A hoard of documents that have not yet been released implicate the state in various corrupt attempts to profit from, or take away, tribal lands and other unlawful practices, Cunha said.

''I just can't believe the state would even get involved [in opposing the tribe] because we have so much documentation,'' Cunha said.

Those documents will be used in whatever avenue the tribe uses to regain its federal status. The efforts to regain federal status are an ethical necessity, Flowers said.

''We were a recognized tribe and we had our recognition stolen from us by a corrupt government - period,'' Flowers said. ''We met the criteria with two positive decisions. Agnes and I wrote most of our petition and we stand by every word and every document to this day. We're looking for the support of Indian country to speak out where our little voice may not be heard and to stand up for justice.''