No casinos in my backyard

With Election Day rapidly approaching, some of Connecticut's politicians are gearing up for the balloting with posturing and positioning on the issue of Indian gaming. Unfortunately, much of this posturing is of the "not in my backyard" variety.

After many months of refusing to take a clear position on Indian gaming, Connecticut's Republican Governor, John G. Rowland, has finally revealed his true colors. It could not have been worse for that state's tribes who seek economic self-determination through federal recognition.

Rowland has announced his strident opposition to further Indian-owned casinos in Connecticut. According to a Sept. 14 report in New London's The Day, Rowland also said that he would "protect homeowners" by fighting post-recognition land claims filed by any tribe. The governor added that he would also prohibit the use of state bond funds for a casino and would not allow the use or sale of state property for gaming.

The governor's opposition to further land claims for recognized tribes appears to be a means of holding them hostage ? i.e. we won't oppose your recognition if you'll give up your claims to land that was stolen from you.

Adding insult to injury, Rowland supports an appeal of the recent recognition of the Historic Eastern Pequot Tribe, based upon what he called "irregularities" in BIA's reliance on state recognition and its combination of two feuding factions into a single tribe.

These arguments, even upon cursory examination, are incoherent at best. The Colony of Connecticut first recognized the Eastern Pequots in 1683 when it acquired their Lantern Hill Reservation for them; members of the tribe have lived there ever since. This was almost one hundred years before the State of Connecticut even came into existence. Why shouldn't state recognition be a legitimate criterion for federal recognition? How can it possibly be irrelevant? It is only logical that if a state has continually acknowledged the existence of an Indian tribe for 319 years, the federal government can and ought to do the same, provided the other stringent recognition criteria are met.

As far as combining "two petitioners into one tribe," as the governor put it, BIA didn't make the Eastern Pequots into a tribe. They already were a tribe, one that had split into two dissident factions in the early 1900s. Since their June recognition, the Paucatucks and the Easterns, have begun negotiations to settle their differences, reunite their tribal government and plan for their future as a tribe.

Rowland further said that he backs the appeal of the tribe's recognition by state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal and several eastern Connecticut towns and supports efforts by the state's Senate delegation to delay and "reform" the recognition process.

Yet, the Day reported, Rowland also "believes that tribes that can meet the high standards established by the federal government should be given the rights and privileges to which they are entitled." With all due respect Mr. Governor, you can't have it both ways. After over 20 years of review by the BIA, the Historic Eastern Pequots have met those standards, and are now entitled to open a casino on their trust land if they so choose.

In addition to the Mashantucket Pequots and the Mohegan Tribe, Connecticut contains nine other tribes currently petitioning for federal recognition. Two of them, the Golden Hill Paugussetts and the Schagticokes, expect BIA to issue preliminary decision on their petitions by the end of this year.

"Each tribal case in Washington is supposed to be judged on its individual merits," said Paugussett Chief Quiet Hawk in the Day article. "The fact that Mr. Blumenthal fears the Pequots decision will enable the Paugussetts to gain federal recognition proves he is out to stop the Paugussetts at any cost. Our application to the BIA has nothing to do with the Pequots."

On Sept. 17, the Paugussetts offered to pay 10 percent of their slot machine revenues to Bridgeport if that city becomes home to the tribe's future casino, assuming recognition is granted.

On Sept. 12, Marc Racicot, former governor of Montana and current head of the Republican National Committee, spoke at a party function in Groton, Conn. His comments there, as reported by the Associated Press, hit the nail on the head.

"I think the question that is going on here is how expansive should Indian gaming be ? is the question really about the federal recognition process or is it about gambling?" Racicot asked rhetorically. "Frankly, I think people should address those questions honestly. My experience with the federal recognition process in eight years as governor of the state of Montana, four years as state attorney general, is that the federal recognition process is clear, plain and steep in integrity."

What is the issue, Governor Rowland, recognition or casinos?

Rowland and his anti-casino cronies have apparently decided that the only way to prevent more casinos in their state is to attack the legitimacy of recognition itself. This is a desperate move that smacks of a complete lack of concern for Connecticut's native people as well as a total lack of respect for their heritage. It's deplorable that these folks can't put as much effort into working out a solution that could benefit everyone, rather than striving to deprive tribes of the only consistently successful means of economic sustainability that has ever worked in Indian country.

Under revenue-sharing provisions in their gaming compacts, the Mashantucket Pequots and Mohegans, respective owners of the Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun casinos, pay 25 percent of their slot machine winnings to the Connecticut's Division of Special Revenue. For the month of August, Knight Ridder reported their respective "contributions" as $18.3 million and $18.1 million. Such funds have, since the 1993 and 1996 openings of the two casinos, contributed enormously and positively to the state's bottom line.

This money, however, is allocated to localities around the state based upon their population, rather than their proximity to the casinos. It may be prudent for Connecticut to examine a revision to this inequitable formula; if funds are more sensibly disbursed to areas affected most by casino traffic, perhaps anti-casino feelings could be somewhat assuaged.

It may also be wise for Connecticut's political and tribal leaders to examine a mechanism through which revenue from gaming tribes could be shared with non-gaming tribes in the state. California tribes currently have such an arrangement, which we will examine in a future edition of "Let the Games Begin."