SCHAGHTICOKE RESERVATION, Conn. - Chief for Life Richard Velky fixed the plumbing at the brown-beamed Schaghticoke reservation pavilion while several of his followers built a large campfire on the eve of hunting season Nov. 18.
His annual hunting trips to the steep, rocky terrain of this 480-acre colonial-era reserve have often caused controversy with an opposing tribal faction based on its resident families, but this year Velky has an overriding reason to seek unity. With a petition for federal acknowledgement just months away from a final ruling, BIA officials have made it clear they want to deal with a united tribe.
Velky attempted to entice members of opposing factions onto the rolls of his 317-person Schaghticoke Tribal Nation (STN) in late September, just before the final deadline for document submissions to BIA's Office of Federal Acknowledgment (OFA) (formerly the Branch of Acknowledgement and Research (BAR)). But the effort blew up in bitter accusations that hostile state politicians are hoping to use to further delay the decision. About 10 members of the rival Schaghticoke Indian Tribe who signed with Velky quickly changed their minds and charged that he had induced them to join with
Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal is now attempting to make the dispute another roadblock in the process. On Nov. 13, he petitioned U.S. District Court Judge Peter C. Dorsey to order the BIA to extend the comment period once more so that he could challenge Velky's membership list
Under a timetable mediated by Judge Dorsey, OFA is supposed to issue a ruling on Jan. 27, 2004. It recently announced it is concentrating its resources on the Schaghticoke case, which tribal members hope would make the state-recognized tribe next in line for federal status.
Taking a break from his plumbing, Velky told Indian Country Today that even with the last minute back and forth, only 7 percent of the total Schaghticoke population still refused to accept his leadership. The 25 or so holdouts, however, include the 11 residents of the reservation, among them Chief Alan Russell of the Schaghticoke Indian Tribe, which has filed its own much less advanced recognition petition.
The BIA leaned heavily on this split in December 2002 when then head Neal McCaleb issued a proposed negative finding on the acknowledgement petition. "The Secretary does not have the authority to acknowledge parts of tribes," said the finding.
It concluded, "in the present-day there continues top be a single Schaghticoke political system encompassing the STN and a substantial number of former members who are not presently members of the STN. Consequently, the present petitioner's membership does not substantially encompass the complete political system."
Velky said that recognition officials had driven the point home in an informal technical assistance meeting. "The BAR was telling us to get together," he said.
"The STN made an effort," he said, amending its constitution to reopen the membership rolls and keep them open for four more years. "We thought they would agree," he said, nodding toward Chief Russell's house, "but at the last minute they decided not to."
Velky's opponents were not available for comment at press time. Russell was not at home, although two dogs, one friendly and one not so, were sitting on his front porch. Old telephone numbers for other opponents were not in service. In previous interviews, however, Schaghticoke Indian Tribe members expressed a visceral reaction to Velky's leadership, which they called dictatorial and intimidating. Residents of the reservation have even complained of random gunfire and the deaths of pet dogs.
The split has been deepened by division over land claims suits and the inevitable casino. Velky was a driving force in a federal suit against the Town of Kent, the private Kent School and several other defendants for 2,150 acres he charges were illegally taken from the tribal reservation. (He said he was provoked to the suit by a Department of Interior attempt to condemn some 40 acres of the surviving reservation for the Appalachian Trail, which runs across it.) Chief Russell's Schaghticokes oppose the land claims as disrupting their good relations with their neighbors. Both suits were stayed by Judge Dorsey pending the BIA decision on federal recognition.
Velky has also made no secret of his need to develop a casino after recognition, if only to pay back financial supporters who he has indicated have put up to $10 million into backing the acknowledgment petition. Although he is keeping the list of supporters secret from everyone except his tribal council, he acknowledges the role of the famous Michael Brown, who helped develop the Mashantucket Pequots' Foxwoods Casino Resort and is now involved with the Seneca Niagara Casino. "Mickey Brown is not in touch with us daily as he used to be," said Velky, adding he was busy with the Senecas.
Both of these factors have also spurred the opposition of Attorney General Blumenthal, who is opposed to casinos and would also defend against the land claims. Blumenthal seized on the latest dispute over membership rolls to file a motion Nov. 7 with Judge Dorsey to order the BIA to extend the comment period.
"Our court action against the BIA is necessary because we have been unfairly denied any opportunity whatsoever to challenge this concocted membership list - incorrect factual claims submitted at the last possible moment," he said in a Nov. 13 release. "This process is an outrage - more proof that the federal tribal recognition process is dysfunctional.
"Under current self-imposed rules, the BIA cannot accept information past the comment period deadline. Nor can it independently verify the veracity of the petitioner's submission - even when that submission is plainly false.
"Only tribes that meet established legal standards should receive recognition - not groups that knowingly use deception, false pretenses, and misleading information to manipulate the system."
Velky is making a low-key response to Blumenthal's not unexpected attack, emphasizing that the attorney general had previously agreed to the court-ordered procedure.
"The order prohibits all parties from attempting to communicate with [BAR] until their work is completed," Velky said in an Oct 14 statement, when the issue first emerged. "The Attorney General should not attempt to influence the process by using the media.
"We will continue to adhere to the process outlined in the Judge's order. We believe the Judge's order is clear and no further public comment on these claims will be made by the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation."