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Schaghticoke leader asks for endorsement

HARTFORD, Conn. -- In the wake of several tense confrontations between
members of the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation and a rival group at the tribe's
reservation, Tribal Nation Chief Richard Velky has asked the Department of
Environmental Protection commissioner to follow her predecessor's lead and
acknowledge his longtime leadership of the tribe.

Velky and DEP Commissioner Gina McCarthy held their first meeting Feb. 7.

While McCarthy intends to study the situation, she cannot make a commitment
at this point to acknowledge the tribal leader, McCarthy's chief of staff,
Matt Fritz, told Indian Country Today a few days after the meeting.

The STN has a 400-acre reservation on Schaghticoke Mountain in Kent and has
been a state-recognized tribe since at least 1736, when the colonial
government set aside 2,500 acres for the tribe.

But the DEP has had a hands-off approach toward the leadership issue during
the past few years while the BIA reviewed the tribal nation's petition for
federal recognition.

A longtime family feud between Velky and his cousin, Alan Russell, has
escalated since the agency recognized the 300-member STN in January 2004.
In an unprecedented decision last October, the BIA reversed the tribal
nation's federal status, giving weight to state Attorney General Richard
Blumenthal's argument that state recognition was used to supplement a lack
of documentation during some periods in the tribe's long history.
Blumenthal led an unrelenting battle against the BIA's decision to
acknowledge the tribe. The tribe has appealed the reversal in federal
court.

Almost weekly confrontations have occurred between STN members and Russell
and his group of supporters since December, when Russell moved a trailer
onto the reservation and declared a "takeover." Several arrests have been
made and complaints filed. Russell lives on the reservation, while Velky
and his family live in a nearby town.

In a follow-up letter to his meeting with McCarthy, Velky said the DEP's
backing of his leadership was crucial to quelling the ongoing tension on
the reservation.

"I am requesting you to stand behind the leadership of the Schaghticoke
Tribal Nation as former Commissioner Arthur Rocque did in [in his letter of] June 2000. A similar letter would notify all involved, the state
courts, the state police, and non-Schaghticoke individuals as to who has
tribal authority. It would also quell the disturbing series of events that
have transpired at our reservation and pavilion during the past three
years," Velky said.

According to court and BIA documents, Russell is a former tribal chief who
was voted out of office in the 1980s. He claims leadership of the
Schaghticoke Indian Tribe, a group of around 14 family members. The
Schaghticoke Indian Tribe, according to the same documents, changed its
name to Schaghticoke Tribal Nation by a membership vote when it
incorporated as a nonprofit organization in 1991.

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Rocque's June 2002 letter said although leadership issues are not within
the DEP's realm of authority, they are "critical to the discharge of our
statutory responsibility relating to tribes." Rocque acknowledged that
Velky had represented the tribe in front of the DEP without challenge for
13 years at that time, and said he saw "no reason to question the validity
of [his] leadership at this time."

Rocque's letter "takes a pretty strong position in recognizing Chief Velky,
and the chief has approached us about taking the same step," Fritz said.

"We're going to follow what the statutes say about leadership issues. The
agency role is not to determine the tribal leader. The agency's primary
concern is the lands that are held in trust for the tribe and that is our
principle role -- are they going to be developing out there?" Fritz said.

Asked if that meant the commission will not make a decision like Rocque's
to acknowledge Velky as the tribe's leader, Fritz said, "No, that's not
necessarily true. To the chief's credit, he brought lots of information for
the commissioner and she needs time to consider the materials that have
been provided."

Velky told McCarthy that the leadership issue was resolved in the 1980s,
when the now-dormant Connecticut Indian Affairs Council validated a tribal
election vote in 1985. The tribal leadership and governing body were
affirmed by Rev. Timothy Meehan, an appointee to the CIAC, and by Ed
Sarabia, the state's Indian coordinator, Velky said.

Both Sarabia and Meehan attended the meeting, along with tribal members and
a representative from Blumenthal's office.

Velky urged McCarthy to study the documents and the historic record.

"This [leadership] decision was honored and forwarded to the commissioner
of DEP. These issues have been resolved through the designated channels, a
process that took over two and a half years. That leadership was reaffirmed
at a full tribal meeting in October 1997 and again in September 2003 to
amend the tribal constitution," Velky said.

Velky faulted Deputy Commissioner David Leff for "ignoring the situation"
and for what he described as "political succumbing" to Blumenthal's
position.

"These circumstances have allowed an incendiary situation to escalate to
where things are today. It is you, as the commissioner of the DEP, who
holds the authority to recognize the governing body of Schaghticoke. The
CIAC is no longer active, but our tribe is a statutorily state-recognized
tribe that is still under the jurisdiction of the DEP," Velky said.