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Golden Hill Paugussetts will appeal rejected land claims

TRUMBULL, Conn. – A federal judge has dismissed the Golden Hill Paugussetts’ remaining land claims, dealing what may be a fatal blow to the tribe’s quest for federal acknowledgement and a casino in Bridgeport.

New Haven U.S. District Court Judge Janet Bond Arterton ruled Nov. 29 that the tribe does not have standing to pursue its land claims in federal court because the BIA has denied the tribe federal acknowledgement.

The decision brings the Golden Hill Paugussetts’ land claims back full circle to the federal district court, where they began in 1992. At that time, U.S. District Judge Peter Dorsey dismissed the tribe’s 1790 Nonintercourse Act land claims on the ground that the tribe had not exhausted the BIA’s administrative procedures for tribal recognition before asking the court to determine its tribal status.

Dorsey’s ruling was overturned in 1994 by the 2nd
Circuit Court of Appeals, which said that tribes do not need BIA recognition to have standing to file land claims.

“Tribal status for the purpose of obtaining federal benefits is not necessarily the same as tribal status under the Nonintercourse Act,” the appeals court ruling said. But, nonetheless, it stayed the land claims pending a BIA determination on the tribe’s federal acknowledgment, noting that whether or not the BIA were to grant the tribe federal acknowledgement for purpose of federal benefits, “Golden Hill must still turn to the district court for an ultimate judicial determination of its claim under the Nonintercourse Act.”

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 decision crushed the tribe’s hope of building a casino in Bridgeport.

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.

Once again, the tribe will appeal the district court decision within the 30-day deadline.

“We disagree with Judge Arterton’s decision and will appeal our case to the Second Circuit, as is our legal right,” GHP Chief Quiet Hawk said in a prepared statement.

According to the statement, the Paugussetts have called for a federal investigation of the BIA’s decision “in light of the ongoing investigation by federal authorities of Jack Abramoff which proves that the BIA decision-making process was corrupted by lobbyists and gaming interests.”

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Steve Ellanger, a GHP spokesman, said the tribe would not discuss its plans further at this time and Quiet Hawk did not return a call seeking comment.

State Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, who has led Connecticut’s opposition to the federal acknowledgement of the GHP, the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation and the Eastern Pequot Tribal Nation, lauded the ruling.

“Our 14-year battle has finally been won, and I am proud that we stood steadfastly and strongly with our allies in the region and around the state. An appeal may be taken, but it is doomed, and we will fight it as long and hard as necessary to vindicate this victory,” Blumenthal said in a prepared statement.

In dismissing the GHP claims, Arterton cited case law that requires an Indian group to “show that it is a ‘body of Indians of the same or similar race, united in a community under one leadership or government, and inhabiting a particular though sometimes ill-defined territory’” in order to prove standing for a Nonintercourse Act claim.

“The BIA’s factual findings preclude plaintiff’s satisfaction of all of these criteria,” Arterton wrote in her 21-page decision.

She pointed to the BIA determination that the tribe did not exist as a community since 1823 and that there was no evidence of political influence or authority after 1802.

Arterton had issued a ruling last July that allowed the tribe to make several amendments to its 1992 federal land claim lawsuit, taking into account recent case law involving the Oneida Indian Nation of New York, the Cayuga Indian Nation and the Shinnecock Indian Tribe.

In the Shinnecocks’ case, a New York federal judge last year officially recognized the Long Island tribe, which may yet result in a tribal casino. A federal court heard arguments in November in a land claim case brought against the tribe by several state agencies and a town. Interior said it did not acknowledge the court’s recognition of the tribe.

The GHP sought monetary damages for the alleged illegal taking of its lands. Arterton’s ruling dismissed the tribe’s federal claims for 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 109 acres in Colchester.

The tribe filed land claims in both state and federal court in 1992. The state claims were dismissed on a technicality and can be refiled. The tribe has said in the past that it retains the right to file aboriginal claims in state court to 700,000 acres of land in western Connecticut.