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Reversal on Schaghticokes not so surprising, report shows

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DERBY, Conn. - Missing a deadline by one day might have cost the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation more than a year delay in its federal recognition, said Chief Richard Velky.

State officials expressed shock at the federal government's "inexplicable reversal" in granting Schaghticoke recognition on Jan. 29, after declining it in December 2002. Attorney General Richard Blumenthal called the decision "outrageously wrong." In a snap reaction he said, "What changed their minds is unfathomable and unforgivable."

Yet a close read of the two reports and an interview with Chief Velky show that the final positive decision was not really a surprise.

The negative "Preliminary Finding" by what was then the Branch of Acknowledgement and Research (BAR) contained broad hints for filling the gaps in the Schaghticoke's petition, some of which were caused by the delay in delivering stacks of evidence. "The report gave us a road map," said Velky.

In the time of good feeling following recognition, Velky won't dwell on the reason the deadline for submissions was missed back in the spring of 2002. But, he told Indian Country Today, "We had a trunk full of documents that would have answered some of their questions."

Recognition for the tribe by that time was following a strict timetable negotiated under the aegis of U.S. District Court Judge Peter Dorsey, who is hearing three related Schaghticoke land claim suits. So the tribe waited to make its case in the comment period on the Preliminary Finding. Even though the BAR report found gaps in tribal continuity, it also made clear they might be bridged with more work.

As in many recognition petitions, the final hurdle was to show continuous existence in two criteria, tribal community and political authority. Although the Schaghticokes were a state recognized tribe with a reservation in the northwestern Connecticut town of Kent dating to 1737, the BAR had trouble with several narrow periods. It suggested filling in one gap, from 1940 to 1967, with expanded oral histories, some of which the tribe's researchers had already done but not submitted. But the other presented a very sensitive problem.

The BAR said it couldn't show political continuity from 1996 on because the tribe was so deeply split. Personal clashes between Velky and a group led by the Schaghticokes living on and near the 400-acre reservation, as well as some older leadership disputes, had led to a separate recognition petition filed by the Schaghticoke Indian Tribe. As of 2002, said the BAR, the 273-member Tribal Nation represented only part, even if by far the larger part, of the tribe's total political system.

In the interim, the Tribal Nation and the feds in effect finessed the split. Velky said his council decided to build a standing invitation for reunion into their constitution, a process requiring 55 percent approval of the full voting membership. In mid-2003, he said, over 112 tribal members gathered and voted unanimously for the amendment. As a result the tribe drew up both an official membership list and a second list of 42 "unenrolled tribal community members," including Velky's most bitter opponents. In a last-minute controversy, 15 people on the second list decided to apply for Tribal Nation, but nine of them, all from the same family, quickly changed their mind and withdrew. But the Final Determination said it didn't matter.

The report, written by what after BIA reorganization became the Office of Federal Acknowledgement, stated "the combination of the two specific lists submitted by the STN, identified the tribe being acknowledged and shall comprise the tribe's base membership roll."

The move goes beyond the previous federal recognition, which brought together two Eastern Pequot applicants into a unified tribe. The Eastern Pequots buried their differences in what is to all appearances a highly-successful merger of their tribal governments. In the case of the Schaghticokes, the split remains, amid some confusion.

Michael Burns, an attorney for Schaghticoke Indian Tribe, told the Hartford Courant, "The federal government is recognizing the Schaghticoke people as a tribe. But they are not going to recognizing one group's authority over the other group."

Velky himself offered hope for conciliation. "Nobody is trying to get rid of anybody," he said.