Exclusive Interview: Pequot leaders plan for united future


Joint interview with Marcia Flowers, chairwoman Eastern Pequots and James Cunha, chairman Paucatuck Eastern Pequots, at annual Eastern Pequot pow wow, Lantern Hill Reservation on July 28.

Indian Country Today: Here we are at the joint Eastern Pequot 2002 pow wow and I'm talking with Marcia Flowers and James Cunha, co-chairman, co-chiefs now of the ?

James Cunha: We're not there yet.

Marcia Flowers: We're still ironing out a few last details, and we're going forward.

ICT: I wanted to tell you that seeing you come in during the grand procession was very moving, to see that display of unity.

Cunha: It wasn't a display. The word display means it's not real; it means to put up a front. This was real. This was not a display. We are unified. This is for our people. See all these kids around here. This is for them. (sound of child crying)

Flowers: We are working on merging committees.

Cunha: We're merging together. We're putting it together. We're actually getting to know each other from working together.

ICT: Were you surprised that the final recognition was a joint recognition?

Flowers: That's how I had written the petition. The part that I had responsibility for was kinship.

We were always one tribe right along. One tribe, one people, same reservation, only one people through time. That's how our tribe wrote our petition.

Cunha: Nothing the federal government or the BIA does surprises me. If anyone had told me in the 1980s we would not see federal recognition until 2002, I would have said, naw, naw.

Were we surprised that the proposed findings were such? Everybody knew that this was a possibility. I think it helped us put together the best possible petition. I think it's unbeatable.

Flowers: But it didn't just happen. I was proposing this to Jim and his mother [Agnes Cunha, former Paucatuck tribal chairwoman] for a year since I came on as chairman. We have been talking. We all want the same thing.

Cunha: We all want the same thing, to bring the family home. We all want the same things for one another.

ICT: Can you describe what kind of transition you're making now, what sort of government you're looking for?

Flowers: We're really in negotiations on that. We have met three times, both councils. Rick Hill and his group are working with us, telling us about federal constitutional issues, to make sure our constitution has the proper language. We're working with the Eastern Pequot constitution ? That constitution will do except for the seating of the council. The rest of it is pretty much ready to go off.

Cunha: We're looking at all our options. I think that we're forming one governing body for one tribal membership. I really mean it that we're one tribal nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. It's going to take time.

ICT: We felt vindicated at Indian Country Today about your recognition. What do you think the fact it came from a Republican administration says to the critics who were opposing you every step of the way?

Cunha: You know what, every one thought the Clinton Administration was so corrupt under Kevin Gover and now it's the Bush Administration we're going to be upfront and honest. And Neal McCaleb said he's going to listen to the BAR staff.

The critics didn't listen to what was said in the technical meetings. The BAR staff said they were proposing a negative because they didn't have the time they felt was necessary to do the job correctly. It wasn't that they didn't think we met the criteria. They didn't have the time to do their job correctly. And you can get all that off the Aug. 8 and 9, 2001 transcripts.

Our critics are going to call for a GAO investigation of the Bush Administration. They'll keep pushing it until they can persuade somebody to their way of thinking.

ICT: Since the recognition have you seen any change in the opposition? Considering the fact that Jeff Benedict did so poorly in his campaign, do you feel people are coming around to accepting you?

Flowers: I think that the general public and that the community are favorable to our recognition. I think the general feeling there is they are glad the tribe has federal recognition, even those against casino gaming. They are able to separate the two. We have a good relationship with the community at large. It's just the local leaders who keep pushing.

What you are hearing from the politicians is not what the community is telling us.

Cunha: I think you see a fine example in North Stonington.

One, we've never had a public referendum that showed they really want to fight us. There's always been a selectman's meeting with a couple of dozen people who are going rah, rah, rah, let's fight this. Twenty-four people out of 4,000 is not a majority of the people.

You know if the people were against us, how could I have won public office in North Stonington? That was by a vote of the people.

ICT: You're chairman of the Democratic Town Committee?

Cunha: Chairman of the town committee. I've been voted in unanimously for two years. I also hold a seat on the Planning and Zoning Commission, which was an elected town position. I had to get on the ballot and run a campaign. I for one did not run a campaign. I did not make a phone call. And my opponent sent out a flyer telling people not to vote for me because I was a Native American. It shows that people know that we are part of the community, that we care about our community. My family can show that we lived here for 350 years. We are part of it.

ICT: One of the issues for the outside world is the casino. You have two sets of backers who supported your petitions for recognition. How are you going to handle their claims?

Flowers: We haven't gotten to that.

Cunha: Our concern is federal recognition. We have until Sept. 30 for people to file an appeal. If an appeal is filed, all our attention has to be on the appeals process.

We have to come out with federal recognition in hand. Once federal recognition is in hand for this tribe, everything else will fall into place.

ICT: You did say in your speech that you will have one casino.

Cunha: To be honest with you, it's always been in there. One of the rights we have as a Native American tribe is to do that. That is a right given to us by the United States Congress. We have that right. You know, we've watched the Mohegans; we've watched the Mashantucket Pequots. We spent a lot on our petitions. We have 1,115 people to care about. We have medical issues. We have housing issues, all kinds of health issues. You know the casino is an opportunity to do all the other things we want to happen for our people. We do not want to be defined by this.

Flowers: As far as planning one, we don't have recognition yet. The important thing to me for the tribe is getting a final [recognition order] in order to be able to access the federal programs and services. A lot of our children normally wouldn't be able to go to college because of funding.

We need the ability to tap these resources. That's my immediate concern. The rest of it will come in its time.

Cunha: That will fall into place when the time comes. So much depends on the state of Connecticut. We don't know how long the appeals process will take.

ICT: Having gone through this process, what do you think about the recognition process?

Cunha: It's not as easy as the BAR staff tells you at the beginning.

Flowers: It's not cut and dried as looking at the regs.

It could be more straightforward, like having written instructions. It's very ambiguous right now, so you gather documents, a whole lot of material, and maybe only one-eighth of that is what they need. A lot of time you're not really sure what the BAR staff wants from you.

Cunha: For instance, the Mohegan Tribe and we both went through the recognition process. When we were going through the process, there was that directive that everybody thought helped us. It didn't help us either. The BIA staff was not allowed to come out and help us, and tell us where they thought we were weak and where we were strong.

In the case of the Mohegan Tribe, [BAR staffer] Virginia DeMars, who worked on both our petitions, came out to the Mohegans, looked through their documents, and put together a case for them. We didn't have that availability.

I know for a fact that the BAR staff came down to the Mohegans and spent time picking through their proposed negatives and proposed positives. We had a proposed positive, they didn't come down and point out what was positive for the proposed findings.

We had no help. We were told that we were different. They said send us the documents because that's what we're looking at, just the documents. We didn't have anyone come down and help us. So this process is ever changing.

Flowers: In the direction of putting more of the burden on the tribes.

Cunha: It costs the tribes more for experts, in anthropology, genealogy, historians, because we don't have access to the BAR staff. And with the lawsuit we couldn't even talk to the BAR staff. For the last two years of the petition, everything had to be done through our lawyers sending a brief to their lawyers.

Flowers: Except at the end when Dr. DeMars called me to say the petition looked very good. But that was at the very end.

ICT: Getting back to the political impact and the example of Jeff Benedict, his failure to get 10 percent of the delegates at the District nominating convention for the Congressional seat. Does that say to you that the politicians who are staking their careers on opposition to tribal casinos are going up a dead end?

Flowers: It is showing that if they do have a one-issue platform it wouldn't win them very many voters. Jeff Benedict sounded like he had only one issue. We know his issue.

Cunha: The campaign made a lot of assumptions. It made a lot of assumptions that people wanted to believe, but they weren't fact-based.

I doubt that Jeff did any research on this tribe. He relied on researchers who were hired by the towns and who Dr. DeMars said were not credible in her Aug. 8 and 9 testimony.

If you look at Jeff Benedict's book, there's a section of the book that talks about old Will Jackson living on the reservation. He was true Indian. All the neighbors thought of him as a true Indian. We're very proud to say that he was a member of this tribe. The people who say we're not Indians, his book contradicts that. Will Jackson hunted with a bow and arrow. All the neighbors spoke of him as a true Indian.

So we're here. We didn't go anywhere for 350 years.

ICT: How about Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal?

Flowers: I think he's a lovely man.

Cunha: Part of us should really thank Attorney General Blumenthal because if he hadn't brought his lawsuit I think we'd still be waiting. He actually helped us by making the time shorter. Because once you put in your final petition there's no time basis for the BIA to make a decision. It could be held three or four years. By taking this to federal court for the three towns, he actually gave us a timeline. So we're grateful that he did it.

ICT: This was an unintended consequence?

Cunha: We think the Attorney General is a fair man. We think that when they look at all the facts, they will make the right decision. As I said earlier, when all the dust settles, we're still going to emerge as a federally recognized tribe.