Disappointed chief threatens land suits
BRIDGEPORT, Conn. - After more than a decade as the bogeymen of this
state's politicians and homeowners, the Golden Hill Paugussett Tribe lost
its bid for federal recognition through the BIA.
Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Interior-Indian Affairs Aurene Martin
announced June 14 that the Golden Hill petition received a final negative
from the Office of Federal Acknowledgement (OFA). She said the decision
completed the BIA process for the Bridgeport-based tribe, although it is
expected to appeal to the Interior Board of Indian Appeals and possibly to
federal district court.
The decision drew a bitter protest from Paugussett Chief Aurelius Piper
Jr., Chief Quiet Hawk, and jubilation from state Attorney General Richard
Blumenthal, an opponent of new tribal recognitions, both in his state and
its neighbors. Piper renewed his threat to pursue land claims suits against
the city of Bridgeport and homeowners in Fairfield and New Haven counties,
which by a previous count could reach up to 20,000 actions. U. S. District
Court Judge Peter Dorsey had stayed previous actions until the tribe's
federal recognition was resolved through the BIA.
Piper said in a statement, "The Golden Hill Tribe will receive justice one
way or another. Now we will move forward to achieve satisfactory
compensation for our Aboriginal lands. We sought a resolution to these
claims more than a decade ago, but our appeals fell on deaf ears.
"Now is the time to have our land claims fairly judged in a court of law."
It remains to be seen whether Judge Dorsey will find that the tribe no
longer has standing to pursue the suits or whether he will let them proceed
under a form of judicial recognition.
The Golden Hill Paugussetts launched their first round of suits in 1992,
generating anti-Indian passions that still fuel state political opposition
to all tribal recognitions. Although the current opposition casts itself as
anti-casino, the fear of granting standing for land claims suits remains
evident. In a statement hailing the denial of recognition, Attorney General
Blumenthal said, "We will continue to adamantly oppose whatever further
steps the Golden Hill Paugussett may take, including an appeal or assertion
of land claims."
He elaborated, "The continued threat of land claims by this group is urgent
and immediate. We will fight them as vigorously and tenaciously as we did
in the mid 1990s, when we won dismissal of similar claims, brought to hold
hostage innocent property owners and pressure the state."
The OFA ruling ends a tumultuous ride through the recognition process in
which the Paugussetts managed to revive their petition after a turndown a
decade ago. They once again received a preliminary negative in January
2003. In the reconsideration phase since then, they lost ground. Martin
observed in a telephone press conference that in the final OFA finding, the
tribe failed to satisfy four of the seven recognition criteria, where it
had previously fallen short on three. She also said the tribe had not
submitted a rebuttal during the final comment period.
The decision in the end hinged on the issue behind the 1995 negative
finding. Martin said the Golden Hill leaders traced their descent from a
19th century figure, William Sherman, that the OFA could not conclusively
determine was an Indian. Although he drew money from the state fund
established with the sale of the tribe's reservation in what is now
downtown Bridgeport, Martin said that fund had also lent money to
In June 1995, then BIA head Ada Deer used the ambiguity about Sherman to
justify an expedited rejection of the Golden Hill petition. She acted under
a provision that saved the Branch of Acknowledgment and Research (BAR), the
predecessor of OFA, the need to evaluate the petition on all seven
criteria. On appeal, however, the BIA under the Clinton administration
found that the earlier ruling overlooked evidence supporting Sherman's
claim and reopened the petition.
The reversal was signed by Deputy Assistant Secretary-Indian Affairs
Michael J. Anderson because BIA head Kevin Gover recused himself from the
petition. For a brief period in the mid-90s, Gover acted as counsel for the
Golden Hill petition. (Noting that it had been rejected, he later called
it, "not my best piece of lawyering.")
The final negative ruling could stand as a rebuttal to the often-repeated
claim that federal recognitions are improperly influenced by political
influence. The one piece of evidence cited in newspaper articles is that
Thomas C. Wilmot, a Rochester, N.Y., developer who has backed the Golden
Hill Paugussetts, once hosted a fundraiser for Hillary Clinton. Blumenthal
also frequently called Gover's past representation of the tribe a conflict
of interest, in spite of his recusal from the case. Asked about Wilmot at
her press conference, Martin said, "I don't know who he is."
She added, "I would just say that the process we used is the same process
we used in the Schaghticoke determination, the historic Eastern Pequot
determination, the Duwamish, the Chinook, all the determinations we've made
over the last four years. It hasn't changed."
She said, "I don't believe there is political interference in the process.
We work very hard for there not to be any interference in the process."
The negative finding at least temporarily disarmed critics of the BIA, who
are already fighting two previous recognitions and are gearing up to
protest new ones. Martin deferred another announcement, on two petitions
from the Nipmuc or Nipmuck Indians of Massachusetts, until the end of the
week, after press time. Her spokesperson, Nedra Darling, said she felt it
was too tight a timetable to issue one right after the other.
The Golden Hill decision was due June 11, but was postponed because of the
federal Day of Mourning for the late President Ronald Reagan.