KENT, Conn. - One of the smallest tribes in New England is making a pretty big noise these days.
The bitterly divided Schaghticokes drew a crowd of state and local reporters to their 400-acre state reservation over the Fourth of July holiday when one faction announced it would bar hikers from the stretch of the famed Appalachian Trail that crosses tribal land.
Richard L. Velkey, president of the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation, announced the closing to protest the decades-long delay in his group's petition for federal recognition. After making his point, he backed off. Hikers went through peacefully on the one-mile of the Maine-to-Georgia trail that crosses the wooded, stone-bluffed Schaghticoke land that borders the Housatonic River.
There was no peace on the tribal land however. The rival Schaghticoke Indian Tribes claims the allegiance of the reservation's 11 residents and other tribal members in surrounding towns. Its chief, Alan Russell, repudiated the trail closing and publicly challenged Velky's tribal genealogy. Velky in return said the residents on the tribal land were "trespassers themselves." He said they opposed him because of his federal petition went through, they would have to find new homes.
Russell's group is working on its own recognition petition. But Velky, who claims 300 followers, has a long head start. He said he started the petition 19 years ago and was notified three years ago that it was ready for federal review. But, he said, last year BIA officials told him not to expect a decision for another seven to 10 years.
Casino politics loom over the dispute. Velky has acknowledged outside financial backing for his petition. His headquarters are 40 miles to the south in Monroe, an hour drive from the reservation but next door to the depressed industrial city of Bridgeport, which has long sought an economic boost from a casino.
Velky has tried to push the process with his own land claims suit, to regain 2,000 acres for the reservation. The property just north of current tribal land includes the town's wastewater treatment plant and the historic Kent School, an upper-class private prep school which in the early 19th century educated a number of Indian and Hawaiian leaders, including the trail-blazing Cherokee journalist Elias Boudinot.
Two weeks earlier, more than 100 tribal members, Kent townspeople and journalists jammed a town forum to hear about the impact of federal recognition on the towns neighboring the Mohegan and Mashantucket Pequot reservations. The mayor of Montville, home of the Mohegan Sun casino, and the first selectmen of Preston and North Stonington, hostile neighbors to the Pequots and their Foxwoods Resort and Casino, differed sharply in their approach.
Montville Mayor Howard Beetham said his town supported the Mohegan petition to save itself from heavy defense industry payoffs. "We would have had foreclosures everywhere without the Mohegans," he said. "They have saved the housing market."
At the other end of the spectrum, Preston First Selectman Richard Congdon deplored the impact of Foxwoods traffic on his "beautiful rural community." He attacked the idea of tribal sovereignty and said towns should closely monitor recognition petitions.
Shortly after the forum, Congdon and town officials from North Stonington and Ledyard traveled to Washington, D.C., to enlist support from Connecticut's two senators, Christopher J. Dodd and Joseph I. Lieberman, and their U.S. Representative, Sam Gejdenson, in a dispute with the BIA. The town leaders charged that the BIA refused to allow them to review recognition petitions from two other tribes, the Eastern Pequots and the Paucatuck Eastern Pequots, which received preliminary federal approval this spring.
The Kent forum also highlighted the Schaghticoke's feuding. Speaking from the floor, Russell, the local resident, said to applause that he loved his hometown and would never do anything to hurt it. He said, "Richard Velky does not represent the Schaghticoke Indians of Kent, the residents who live on the reservation." Velky, who complained to the press beforehand that he was not allowed a place on the panel, tried to make a rebuttal. Since he had already spoken once, the moderator ruled him out of order and asked him to wait until all others had a chance to speak for the first time. Velky stalked out of the meeting.