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Schaghticoke recognition, Connecticut vows to appeal

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DERBY, Conn. - Sputtering state politicians are vowing to appeal the Jan. 29 federal recognition of the Schaghticoke people, but a legal twist in the case leaves open where they could take their complaint and how long they could draw it out.

Attorney General Richard Blumenthal met Feb. 4 with officials from about a dozen Fairfield County cities and towns to discuss an appeal he said the state would file within the next several weeks with the Interior Board of Indian Appeals (IBIA). "We are mapping a joint strategy for an appeal, which certainly the state will undertake and we hope the cities and towns will join," he told reporters.

But according to the Department of the Interior, recourse to the overloaded IBIA is not the only option. Recognition came under a timetable supervised by a federal court, and it requires negotiation among the partiers over where to take the appeal. The other option would be federal court under the Administrative Procedures Act, an attempt by Congress to require timely decisions from the federal bureaucracy. Negotiations will be on going for the 30 days following the recognition decision, said Barbara Coen of Interior's Office of the Solicitor, Branch of Tribal Government and Alaska. The talks might be tough going, however. Attorney General Blumenthal has said that he would not waive his right to appeal to the IBIA.

Conceivably, appeal through the federal courts could move faster than a case in the IBIA, which has been sitting for more than year on a state appeal of the earlier recognition of the Eastern Pequot Tribal Nation, with no movement in sight.

In the meantime, Schaghticoke Tribal Nation Chief Richard Velky denounced the instantaneous opposition from Blumenthal and many other Connecticut politicians. "I'm outraged at their reaction," he said. He noted they had issued vehement denunciations of the BIA and the recognition process before they could even have read the decision.

The announcement on the afternoon of Jan. 29 brought an outburst of celebration at tribal headquarters in this small mill city in the heart of the state's once thriving manufacturing region. About 100 tribal members cheered and a drum group beat a victory song as the news emerged from a tribal council conference call with then acting BIA head Aurene Martin.

A statement from the office of Assistant Interior Secretary - Indian Affairs said the Schaghticoke "as defined in the Assistant Secretary's final determination, meets the regulatory requirements for a government-to-government relationship with the United States." The action became official in early February on publication of the 13-page summary of the 200-page final report in the Federal Register. In the absence of an appeal it would take effect April 28.

It was immediately unclear how the BIA, or the nine member Schaghticoke Tribal Nation council, would handle the rival Schaghticoke Indian Tribe, a group centered on the inhabitants of the 400-acre reservation in Kent. The rocky hillside along the Housatonic River was set aside for the Schaghticokes by the Colony of Connecticut in 1737. About 11 Indians now live there. Together with another 30 or so in the nearby area, they have bitterly rejected the leadership of Chief for Life Velky, who has a more urban base of about 300 supporters.

The BIA has treated both groups as part of the same tribal unit and earlier declined to approve the Tribal Nation petition on the grounds that it represented only a part of the Schaghticoke political system. In submitting a revised petition, Velky managed to produce an at least temporary showing of allegiance from many of his former critics.

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Velky is pushing a land claim suit for 2,150 acres surrounding the reservation, some of which are now in the hands of the private Kent School, the Connecticut Light and Power utility and the town of Kent. U.S. District Court Judge Peter Dorsey supervised the timetable to tribal recognition to move these cases along.

Velky told Indian Country Today he was seeking the expanded land base to accommodate members of the tribe who wanted to return to their homeland. "We have quite a few families wanting to return," he said. "We estimate about 80 tribally enrolled families are interested in coming back to their homeland as soon as they are able."

He denied rumors that he would try to evict his opponents on the reservation. Instead, he said, they had tried to expel one of his supporters. He did say, however, that the status of a non-Indian living on the reservation remained to be determined.

But these divisions, and talk of future economic plans, were lost in the euphoria of the announcement. "Let us relish in this moment of federal recognition," said Velky, "before taking any step forward."

But if Velky declined to talk about economic development, which with almost complete certainty would be based on a casino, state politicians could talk about little else. State Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, the archenemy of federal recognition for state-recognized tribes, instantly vowed to appeal the decision, which without any apparent evidence he called the product of "friends in position of power."

Sounding like Howard Dean in Iowa, he said to television cameras, "This precedent is so astonishing and appalling in its reach and effect that it should awaken Congress to the BIA's arbitrary and lawless approach."

U.S. Rep. Christopher Shays, R-First District, issued a statement saying, "This recognition may enable the Schaghticokes to build a casino, which I believe will be very detrimental to the state. We have to respect the process, but I hope the state uses all the resources necessary to seek to overturn the decision." Just the day before, Shays and U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., introduced a bill requiring state legislatures to approve new gaming facilities. The measure would also direct the President to set up an "Advisory Committee on Minimum Regulatory Requirements and Licensing Standards for Indian Gaming" and revive Wolf's call for a federal commission on living standards in Indian country and the local impact of Indian gaming.

The Schaghticokes will in effect be obligated to seek a casino to pay back the cost of their 25-year quest for recognition, which Velky has said is in the range of $10 million. The money came from a shifting and still undisclosed group of investors, although Velky has acknowledged the primary role of Michael D. "Mickey" Brown, who launched the fabulously successful Foxwoods Casino Resort for the Mashantucket Pequots and is now presiding over the Seneca Niagara Casino in western New York. A casino would almost certainly not arise on the Kent reservation, which is relatively remote and surrounded by upscale villages, but might be welcomed by one of western Connecticut's decaying industrial cities.

The Schaghticokes are an amalgamated tribe descended from the Weantinock and Potatuck tribes who first made contact with European settlers in northwest Connecticut. For much of the 18th century, their community in Kent was tended to by the Moravian Brothers, whose records were crucial to the successful drive for recognition.