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Schaghticoke Tribal Nation’s $610 Million Lawsuit Against CT Inches Forward

The Schaghticoke Tribal Nation alleges that the State of Connecticut sold off its land without paying; it's suing for $610 million.

The first court action in a lawsuit filed a year ago by the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation against the State of Connecticut will take place this month. The complaint claims the State of Connecticut owes the tribe more than $610 million in mismanaged land use trust funds. A pretrial evidentiary hearing will be held at Connecticut Superior Court in Hartford on September 14 on the state’s motion to dismiss the case.

The lawsuit, which was filed in October 2016, says the state illegally took most of the Schaghticoke (pronounced Skat’ i coke) Tribe’s land and then sold it off, rented it or otherwise profited from it without compensating the tribe. The nonpayment of funds has violated state statues and resolutions for more than 250 years and will continue to do so every year until the tribe is paid, the lawsuit says.

The land at issue is the tribe’s reservation in Connecticut’s so-called Northwest Corner, where the 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail cuts into Connecticut from New York State. In 1736 Connecticut’s colonial government set aside for the tribe’s use approximately 2,400 acres of land in what became the Town of Kent in 1739. The land is part of the aboriginal territory that the Schaghticoke people have occupied since time immemorial, according to the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation (STN).


Under Connecticut’s governing statutes and resolutions dating back to 1757, the State—acting through its appointed overseers and later its agencies—was required to act in the best interest of STN in managing STN’s land and tribal funds, the lawsuit says.

“The State did just the opposite,” the lawsuit says. “Acting in excess of its statutory authority, the State took almost all of STN’s land and sold it off, under the guise that the State would eventually pay STN the proceeds from these sales.”

The lawsuit also announces STN’s plan to seek restoration of its federal recognition (or federal acknowledgement), which the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) issued in a Final Determination on January 29, 2004. Richard Blumenthal, the state attorney at the time, immediately vowed to fight the BIA decision and convinced almost every other Connecticut politician to join him. After 18 months of lobbying Washington decision makers, Blumenthal and his coalition partners succeeded. In an unprecedented move, the BIA issued a Reconsidered Final Determination on Columbus Day 2005, reversing its previous decision and withdrawing the tribe’s federal status. Indian Country Media Network spoke with Chief Richard Velky and the tribe’s attorney Austin Tighe about the case.

Schaghticoke Tribal Nation Chief Richard Velky

Schaghticoke Tribal Nation Chief Richard Velky

Chief Richard Velky

You have often talked about seeking justice for the tribe. Please talk about that and how this lawsuit fits that goal.

This case is entirely about justice and righting centuries of wrongs done against STN—one of the State’s first families—by the State of Connecticut. Beginning with the creation of a 2,400-acre reservation in 1736, the state of Connecticut has blatantly and dismissively manipulated the system against us. STN is owed hundreds of millions of dollars by the State for land that was unconstitutionally taken, and is only interested in a fair and just financial settlement for this land. Our case clearly spells out the state’s three centuries of blatant and dismissive manipulation of the system against us, up to and including the politically motivated stripping of our properly earned federal recognition in 2005, a direct result of a misleading, dishonest and intensive lobbying campaign by the state’s political leaders. But at its heart this case is about one thing—STN receiving fair and just financial settlement for the land that was unconstitutionally taken by the state.

What was your response when you first realized the significance of the land use documents?

This case is about three incontrovertible facts, all of which became evident once we found these documents. The first is, the State took the STN’s land, systemically and over a period of 117 years starting in 1801. The second is that the State of Connecticut promised to pay STN for that land, and then broke that promise again and again. And lastly, both the U.S. Constitution and the Connecticut Constitution require the payment of fair compensation for the taking of this land. This has become abundantly clear to us, and again, these facts are incontrovertible. This is the core of our $610 million lawsuit against the state. That amount is the result of simple interest being applied to the amounts the State collected, and seeking justice for the tribe.

Was there any thought of not filing the complaint?

No. Not after we asked the State for an accounting and they refused.

Former State Attorney Richard Blumenthal, now a U.S senator seeking reelection, successfully manufactured a “leadership dispute” in his battle against the Nation’s federal recognition, which the state defendants are still using to try to stop the Nation’s complaint from going forward. After years of ignoring your assertion that there has been no formal challenge to your leadership according to the process required by state statutes, the defendants say the “dispute” should be resolved by the stator process. Your thoughts?

There is no leadership dispute. It is a fiction. The State has never claimed that there is a dispute over the leadership of the Schaghticoke Tribe. That is, until the State was sued for $610 million. In fact, the State’s stated position—in writing—for at least the last seventeen years has been that Chief Velky is the leader of the Schaghticokes. On June 14, 2000, DEP Commissioner Arthur J. Rocque, a predecessor of Defendant Klee’s, wrote to STN Chief Richard Velky, stating:

“Questions over [Tribal] leadership, however, are critical to the discharge of our statutory responsibility relating to tribes and, when disputes arise, we rely on advice from the Connecticut Indian Affairs Council (CIAC). Inasmuch as you have represented the Schaghticoke Tribe in matters before this Department for approximately thirteen years and inasmuch as the CIAC has not accepted a challenge to the Schaghticoke Tribal seat, I see no reason to question the validity of your leadership at this time.

“It is therefore the intent of this Department to continue to communicate with the tribe principally through you as Chief until such time as another individual claims leadership of the Schaghticoke Tribe and is able to present verifiable evidence of that claim.”

That letter, and the State’s position, remain in effect today.

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What message about the lawsuit will you bring to members at your annual meeting in early October?

We intend to fully prosecute this lawsuit to recover the money we were promised, and to which we are constitutionally entitled.

Attorney Austin Tighe will represent the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation in its lawsuit agains the State of Connecticut.

Attorney Austin Tighe will represent the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation in its lawsuit agains the State of Connecticut.

Attorney Austin Tighe of Nix, Patterson & Roach

What are the common factorsin the Cobell case and other land use cases?

Those cases are based in large part on a breach of trust, as is this case.

What, if anything, is unique in STN’scase?

This case is based on three incontrovertible facts:

  1. The State took the STN’s land;
  2. The State promised to pay for that land, and then broke that promise; and
  3. Both the U.S. Constitution and the Connecticut Constitution require the payment of fair compensation for the taking of this land.

Also, while the takings date back to 1801, there is a present injury here as well, one that occurred this year, and will occur next year unless the State complies with Connecticut law: [Department of Energy and Environmental Protection] Commissioner Klee is required to render an accounting of STN funds every year. He has not done so.

What is the possibility of a negotiated political settlement instead of a courtroom drama?

We intend to fully prosecute this lawsuit to recover the money we were promised, and to which we are constitutionally entitled.

The discovery of the mortgage documents was surprising—what else is waiting to be found?

We look forward to finding out once discovery gets under way.

About STN’s federal recognition—doesn’t the fact that Connecticut appointed a continuous line of ‘overseers’ from mid-18th century into the early 20th century provide “probative” proof of the Nation’s ‘continuous community’ in the 19th century?


Please explain your arguments against the state’s claim of laches—the argument that it’s too late for the tribe to file this lawsuit.

Without getting too far into legal strategy, both the fiduciary nature of the relationship between the State and the Tribe in this context, and the fact that there is a statute of limitations that would apply here but for Connecticut General Statute 47-61, which negates a time-bar argument in Indian claims relating to land, weigh against laches. Laches is an equitable doctrine, and the balance of equities here, when STN is simply seeking the money the State promised it would pay, tilts considerably towards the Tribe. And finally, it would be unfair to assert laches when we have not even been given an accounting as to our claim, despite having requested one repeatedly, and being statutorily entitled to one.

Why did your firm offer the work on a contingency basis, and how far along in the legal process are you prepared to go?

Because my firm believes in this case. The STN deserves justice. My firm has a long history of fighting for justice for tribes. In August 2015, NPR resolved 100-year-old claims for the Choctaw and Chickasaw Indian Tribes alleging that U.S. government officials failed to properly protect tribal interests in the sale of timberlands from 1908 to 1940. NPR was part of a legal team that included Judge Michael Burrage, a former Chief Judge of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Oklahoma, a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, and the first Native American in history to be appointed to the federal bench. That case settled for $186 million. How far are we prepared to go? As far as it takes, for as long as it takes.