USET tribes to benefit from Mohegans; returned funds

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MOHEGAN, Conn. - The Mohegans are returning more than half a million dollars in federal grants to be redistributed to tribes with greater needs.

The Mohegan Tribal Council voted unanimously recently to return a significant portion of its funding to the BIA, with the intention of helping other members of the United South and Eastern Tribes Inc.

USET is a nonprofit, intertribal organization that represents its 25 member tribes at the regional and national levels, providing a forum for the exchange of ideas and information among tribes, agencies and governments. The organization celebrates its 40th anniversary this year.

On direction from the council, Mohegan Chairman Bruce ;'Two Dogs'' Bozsum returned $105,680 to the BIA. The funding had been awarded in a contract between the tribe and the bureau in connection with the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act. Additionally, Bozsum asked the Indian agency to redistribute another $518,440 in federal funding that has not yet been received.

This is not the first time the Mohegans have returned federal funding. The tribe, which owns the successful Mohegan Sun Casino, has sent back around $9 million in federal funding since 1996 when Mohegan Sun opened.

''We feel there are other Native people with needs greater than ours,'' Bozsum said.

Not all of the refunded money has gone to USET tribes in the past; some has been distributed to tribes all over the United States, Bozsum said.

But this year, the tribe has asked the BIA to give the money to USET tribes who ''have demonstrated the greatest need and suffer from current or previous year shortfalls in funding'' and do not receive more than 10 percent of their revenue from gaming, or have substantial gaming projects under development that may generate such revenue.

The tribe also asked the BIA not to keep the money or give it to other federal government agencies, regardless of any budget cuts or underfunding by Congress.

The Mohegans and the nearby Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, which operates Foxwoods Resort Casino, the state's other successful gaming spot, contribute 25 percent of their net slot profits to the state's general fund each year. Last year, their combined contribution was more than $430 million. Since Foxwoods opened in 1993, the two tribes' total collective contribution to the state of Connecticut has been $4,535,473,220, according to the Division of Special Revenue.

The tribe also recommended that the BIA work with USET to encourage other tribes ''who are enjoying economic development and diversification'' to redirect their federal funding to nongaming tribes.

Around 10 of the USET tribes do not have gaming to support government services to their citizens, according to USET Executive Director Michael Cook.

Mohegan could not distribute the funds directly to other USET tribes because the funding is dedicated to the specific purpose for which it was granted.

''We also did not want to be the ones deciding who has the greatest need, although we do make charitable contributions to other Natives from our own revenue,'' Bozsum said.

In addition to not choosing which USET tribes receive the funding, Mohegan also doesn't ask the BIA where the money goes: only that it goes to needy tribes.

Although other tribes also return federal grants, no tribe should feel obligated to do so, Bozsum said.

''I feel very strongly that this is an individual decision. Each tribe is a separate sovereign nation with different histories and demographics. No tribe should feel pressure to do this.''

In a separate agreement, the tribe has initiated a redistribution plan for funds awarded to Mohegan by IHS grants and contracts, planning to direct the funds to other members of the USET organization.

Mohegan has not returned all of its federal funding, but has retained a ''very small portion'' as a rainy day fund and to keep the connection with BIA intact in case the day comes when the tribe is not able to provide health and education services to its citizens, Bozsum said.

The tribe will continue to return federal money for distribution to needy tribes as long as it can, he said.

''We feel we are blessed by the Creator to be able to help others in this way. It should not be perceived, however, as an act that relieves the responsibility of the federal government to honor their promises to the First Americans.''