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Golden Hill land claims advance

TRUMBULL, Conn. – The Golden Hill Paugussetts’ land claims are moving forward after pending in federal court for a dozen years.

Judge Janet Arterton of the U.S. District Court in New Haven issued a ruling July 13, allowing the tribe to make several amendments to its 1992 land claim lawsuit that take into account recent case law involving the Oneida Indian Nation of New York, the Cayuga Indian Nation and the Shinnecock Indian Tribe.

“If the judge didn’t think the amendments had merit, she would not have granted them,” said GHP council Chief Quiet Hawk.

State Attorney General Richard Blumenthal responded Aug. 3 with a motion to the court to dismiss all outstanding GHP land claims, because the BIA has “twice rejected the group’s petition for federal tribal recognition, most recently last year. The law only allows federally recognized tribes to bring land claims.”

The lawsuit claims 20 acres in downtown Bridgeport, 100 acres in Orange and almost 20 acres in Trumbull, where the tribe has a one-quarter-acre property. The tribe also has a 109-acre property in Colchester.

The GHP filed land claims in both state and federal court in 1992. The state claims were dismissed on a technicality and can be refiled.

The federal land claims based on the 1790 Non-Intercourse Act were dismissed without prejudice by the district court in 1993. But that decision was overturned in 1994 by the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, which stayed the land claims pending a BIA determination on the tribe’s federal acknowledgment.

In staying the claims, the appeals court recognized the BIA’s “primary jurisdiction” over federal acknowledgments, but also allowed that the court can make an independent determination on a tribe’s status.

The 109-member tribe, which has been recognized by the state of Connecticut for 350 years, launched its bid for federal recognition in 1982. The BIA denied the tribe federal acknowledgment in 1996 and again in June 2004, saying it failed to meet four of the seven required criteria.

The denial dashed the tribe’s plan to open a casino in Bridgeport, but that was never the tribe’s original intent, Quiet Hawk said.

“People always thought it was about a casino, but it wasn’t. From the beginning, it was about settling land claims for the tribe to have a larger reservation so the tribe could get together or somehow working for a negotiated settlement to resolve the claims,” Quiet Hawk said.

Thomas Wilmot Sr., a wealthy New York investor and shopping mall developer, is no longer the tribe’s financial backer, Quiet Hawk said, declining to discuss the tribe’s new investor.

An appeal to the Interior Board of Indian Appeals, challenging the BIA’s interpretation of evidence and raising questions of violations of due process in part because of alleged political influence from Connecticut politicians and “interested parties,” was dismissed by the Interior Department secretary.

“As Mr. Blumenthal and other officials in Connecticut have long contended, the BIA has been corrupt for many years. Worse, considering the revelations arising from the Washington lobbying scandals involving Jack Abramoff and Michael Scanlon, including the bribes to which they have both admitted, agencies like the BIA and Department of Interior have proven to be far more dysfunctional than even we could have been imagined,” Quiet Hawk said.

“There are alternatives to the tainted BIA process for tribes like the Paugussetts to gain federal recognition,” Quiet Hawk said, citing a decision last November by New York U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Platt, who recognized the Shinnecock Indian Tribe, bypassing the BIA process, and allowed the tribe to bring forward its land claims.

“The history of our tribe, including hundreds of years of state recognition, is nearly identical to that of the Shinnecock. If you apply the standards to the Golden Hill Paugussetts that the judge applied to the Shinnecock, we have an even stronger case for federal recognition,” Quiet Hawk said.

Arterton restored the tribe’s three federal land claims to the active docket in July 2005, over Blumenthal’s objections.

“Our goal is a knock-out blow to end 14 years of bullying against innocent property owners by a group now resoundingly rejected for federal recognition as an Indian tribe,” Blumenthal said after filing his motion to dismiss in early August. “Threatening these property owners throughout Fairfield and New Haven Counties – including key sectors of Orange, Trumbull and Bridgeport – the group sought to pressure officials into granting their petition. Having been formally denied federal recognition by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, this group has no right to bring these land claims, no legal standing and no plausible claim to seize this land,” Blumenthal said.

Arterton approved amendments for “an accounting of all tax funds paid by possessors of the said land; money damages representing the fair market value of the said land for the entire period of its dispossession; and money damages representing the fair rental value and profits of said land for the entire period of its dispossession.” She denied the tribe’s request for “trespass damages in the amount of the fair rental value of the land for the entire period of its dispossession.”

If the tribe prevails in the land claims, would the state or individual landowners be responsible for paying these damages?

“That would be up to the court. We think between title insurance and the state, they would be able to resolve these issues. The owners are innocent in the sense that they were allowed to buy the land when people knew there were claims to the land,” Quiet Hawk said.

On the back burner are aboriginal land claims for more than 700,000 acres of land in upscale Fairfield County, but the tribe does not intend to file them now, Quiet Hawk said.

“It’s a continuing saga. We’re concentrating on one thing at a time. But even with decisions that have gone against tribes there have been a number of decisions that have gone for tribes, so there’s a basis in law that we believe will allow us to settle these land claims,” Quiet Hawk said.

And will the tribe keep on? “Oh, yes; oh, yes,” Quiet Hawk said.