HARTFORD, Conn. - A generation-old split among the Mohegans is setting a court precedent that could affect use of tribal names throughout Indian country.
The Connecticut Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the Mohegan Tribe of Indians of Connecticut, owners of the enormously profitable Mohegan Sun casino, could not claim their name as a trademark. The federally recognized Mohegans were suing another faction called the Mohegan Tribe and Nation Inc., which is unrecognized but has a petition pending with the BIA.
Along the way, the five judges of the court accepted a lower court finding that the unrecognized faction had a real claim to Mohegan ancestry.
"Simply put, a Mohegan tribe must be permitted to describe itself as such because that is what it is," the decision reads.
Technically, the court said the ethnic name Mohegan and the word tribe were generic terms "when used by any person of Mohegan heritage" and so couldn't be protected under federal trademark law. The case left open the question of whether a non-Mohegan or non-Indian could appropriate the tribal name.
Thomas Acevedo, chief of staff of the tribe which owns the Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, said the decision "was not entirely unexpected." He added that the state court had no jurisdiction on tribal recognition.
The judges did note that "we intimate no view" about whether the non-casino faction "legitimately may claim Mohegan tribal status for any other purpose." But, leaders of the rival Mohegan factions say they are encouraged in an array of other legal challenges, which are multiplying in a confusing fashion.
The faction that won the Supreme Court case, based in Norwich, filed a letter of intent to seek federal recognition in 1992 under the name Mohegan Tribe & Nation. In early February it delivered a full petition to the BIA and asked to go on the "active" list.
In the meantime, however, the Norwich group, led by Eleanor Fortin, changed its name to Native American Mohegans. Under that title it is suing the Uncasville Mohegans in U.S. District Court in Hartford, seeking a share of the Mohegan Sun proceeds. The Fortin group charges it was wrongfully cut out of the land claims settlement negotiated by Congress and Connecticut officials with the Uncasville Mohegans after they received federal recognition in 1994.
To compound the confusion, the name change reflects a split within the Norwich Mohegans. In 1996, rival Moigu Standing Bear ousted Fortin from leadership of the Mohegan Tribe and Nation Inc., which is incorporated under state law, and made it part of a group called the Confederation of the Mohegan-Pequot American Indian Nation and Affiliated Tribes Inc. She continued as head of the Native American Mohegans.
Fortin and Standing Bear have sued each other for use of the Mohegan Tribe and Nation name. The lower court in the trademark case upheld Standing Bear's claim.
The split between the Uncasville and Norwich Mohegans dates back a generation to a leader named John Hamilton. In the Supreme Court's account, Hamilton, also known as Chief Rolling Cloud, began organizing efforts to reclaim tribal lands in 1966. But a schism developed in tribal leadership in 1970 and Hamilton left to form his own group - the Mohegan Tribe and Nation. Before he died in 1988, he designated Eleanor Fortin to succeed him.
In the meantime, the Uncasville group filed a letter of intent to seek recognition in 1978, receiving petition number 38. The BIA gave it final acknowledgement in 1994, and the Mohegan Sun success story quickly followed.
The Uncasville Mohegans charged that Hamilton opened his group to non-Mohegans. Fortin's group furthermore charges that Standing Bear is not a legitimate Mohegan.
Both rivals claim the state Supreme Court ruling as support for their case. "I think it is wonderful," said Standing Bear. "It upheld that we are a bona fide Mohegan tribe."
Fortin's group spoke through its Washington, D.C., representative, Joseph T. Findaro. "This is further affirmation that the Mohegan Tribe is not necessarily the sole successor," he said.