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Schaghticoke gets no state help to stop reservation destruction

HARTFORD, Conn. – The Schaghticoke Tribal Nation and its supporters rallied at the Capitol Jan. 29, asking the state to obey its own laws and protect the tribe’s land from an intruder’s destruction and desecration of burial sites.

But state officials continue to offer the tribe a mind-bending contradictory message: The state can’t act because it can’t interfere in what it calls an “internal dispute” or “leadership conflict” that the tribe itself has to resolve, but the state is willing to provide a mediator to help resolve it.

More than 100 people joined the rally over five hours. Demonstrators waved signs saying “Stop the cultural genocide,” “Respect Schaghticoke Sacred Burial Grounds,” “Justice, Truth, Recognition,” and “Schaghticoke: One of Connecticut’s First Families.”

The tribe was seeking the state’s help to stop Michael Rost, a non-Schaghticoke trespasser, from cutting down trees, bulldozing roads and burials sites, and threatening the habitat of the state listed endangered rattlesnake on the tribe’s 400-acre reservation in Kent, Conn. Rost was arrested on the reservation in 2004 for similar activities, but later returned and continued to tear up the land. For more than a year now the state rebuffed tribal members seeking help to stop Rost.

Schaghticoke Tribal Nation Chief Richard Velky says – and state documents confirm – there has been no legitimate challenge to his leadership. STN was federally recognized in 2004, then had its recognition reversed in 2005 after a concerted political effort led by state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal.

Since then the state has refused to acknowledge Velky’s leadership of the 300-plus member nation, and instead has given credence to a dispute between a brother and sister, who declined to enroll in STN, and who each claim to be the head of the Schaghticoke Indian Tribe, STN’s name before it incorporated in the early 90s.

“The State of Connecticut would rather make this a dispute between factions instead of protecting our land, which it’s supposed to do by law. We’re not asking them to oversee us. We can oversee ourselves. What we’re telling them to do is to respect the leadership of our tribal members. President Obama did not win 100 percent of the vote, but he did win by a majority and that’s what rules. STN has a governing body and I am the chief of that governing body. The State of Connecticut needs to know who the governing body is and accept it and respect it,” Velky said.

At the end of the rally, Velky and other tribal members presented Chris Cooper, the governor’s spokesman, with a petition with more than 2,000 signatures, asking the governor “to investigate and order an immediate halt to the hate crimes, destruction, desecration of sacred lands and encroachment” on the reservation.

The governor’s office provided a prepared statement to Indian Country Today in response to a request for comment:

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Around 100 people gathered in Hartford Jan. 29 to rally in support of the Schahgticoke Tribal Nation’s efforts to get the state to oust a non-tribal intruder who has been bulldozing roads, destroying habitat and desecrating burial sites on the tribe’s reservation. Katherine Saunders, pictured, organized the rally. She is the daughter of the late Pauline Crone Morange, who was a Schaghticoke tribal leader and activist in the state’s Indian community.

“Cooper told the petitioners that Governor Rell supports DEP’s (Department of Environmental Protection, which holds the reservation land in trust for the tribe) efforts to provide a mediator to resolve the dispute. DEP has met – and will continue to meet – its duty under the law to maintain tribal facilities that are not privately owned and to safeguard natural resources. But DEP cannot resolve internal disputes for the Schaghticokes. The state agency has offered the services of a mediator to help the tribe resolve their own internal political differences – but the tribal factions must work things out. DEP will take the steps it must to enforce environmental law – but those laws should not be used as leverage in a political dispute.”

Velky said it’s the state that’s using political influence as it did to overturn the tribe’s federal recognition. “This time they’re having great success in confusing the issues and pretending there’s a factional dispute.

“This isn’t a matter of dispute; it’s a matter of the state recognizing our tribe’s practice and usage as described in their state statute 47-66i. The brother and sister were both voted out of office in 1985. We have documentary proof of that. The tribe voted me in as chief in 1987 and ratified my position again in 1997 and there still has been no challenge to my leadership and the state knows it.”

But the state is not safeguarding the natural or archaeological resources on the reservation. In a December report, state archaeologist Nick Bellantoni said he observed stripped topsoil, exposed tree roots, exposed late 19th and early 20th century artifacts from a midden, a road the width of a bulldozer blade along a steep slope and over the cremated remains of the late Pauline Crone-Morange, a former tribal leader.

“One area has cut through the steep slope advancing up the mountain terrain changing the pattern of ground water over the exposed road and eroding the area. While no ashes or container was observed eroding out of the ground, if Ms. Crone-Morange’s remains were placed at these points, they have been adversely affected by this construction activity,” Bellantoni wrote.

He said he reviewed a 2001 report that documented a number of pre-contact and historic sites on the reservation. “These sites appear eligible for the state and National Register of Historic Places, and are in the area of disturbance.”

Bellantoni sent his report to the attorney general with a recommendation that all activities on the reservation cease immediately so an archaeological survey could be conducted. “I was told I don’t have the authority to issue a cease and desist. It can come from the attorney general or the state police, but I don’t have that authority. But they encouraged me to pursue it with the state attorney to see if there are any violations of state statutes. That office said no criminal violations have occurred that could (justify) a cease and desist. It’s clearly going to be up to the tribe to settle this.”

Russell Means, a famous activist for Indian rights who flew in from his home in Pine Ridge, S.D. for the rally, said the state by its inaction had tacitly acknowledged the nation’s sovereignty. “If you want to be sovereign, you’ve got to act sovereign, as John Mohawk, the great Seneca patriot said,” Means urged the tribe to take action to resolve the issue.