SCHAGHTICOKE RESERVATION, Conn. - Although conflict continues within the Schaghticoke people, the Connecticut Supreme Court has helped clear a blemish from the record of Richard Velky, chief of the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation.
The Connecticut legal system has erased Velky's widely-reported conviction for breach of the peace in a confrontation with the wife of the chief of a rival tribal faction. The incident had led to court restraining orders barring him from the vicinity of several houses on the tribal reservation in Kent.
Because of the narrow access to the usable land of the 480-acre reservation, Velky's opponents there joked that the court orders effectively kept him off the reservation, an exaggerated statement mistakenly repeated in previous articles. Chief Velky has asked for a correction. In an interview with ICT at the tribal pavilion in the heart of the Schaghticoke land, he joked, "You can see that I'm on the reservation."
The court case grew from long-standing hostility between Velky, a city resident whose 317 followers live throughout the state, and Alan Russell, Chief Grey Fox of the Schaghticoke Indian Tribe, whose much smaller membership includes the 11 residents of the reservation.
Russell lives up a steep driveway at the southern entrance to the reservation, whose one road follows the north-south course of the Housatonic River. Steep rock faces parallel the road to the west, making most of the land inaccessible except for a meadow where the pavilion sits and the adjoining tribal graveyard. Russell's house overlooks the pavilion, and in early October 2000, he and Velky had a nasty confrontation over its use.
Russell's group installed a steel door and deadbolt lock on the office at the pavilion, to keep Velky out. Velky and two of his nephews were trying to force the door open when Russell's wife, Karen, arrived with a camera. In a violent confrontation, Velky smashed the camera and, according to Karen, forced her to the ground with painful bruising.
In a local jury trial, Velky was convicted of criminal mischief and breach of the peace. The court also issued a restraining order barring Velky from the vicinity of the Russells' house. But Velky appealed the conviction as an infringement of tribal sovereignty. This May the Connecticut Supreme Court accepted a part of his argument and ordered a new trial. Although it upheld state criminal jurisdiction over the reservation, it said the trial court improperly kept the jury from hearing about the leader-
According to the unanimous opinion by Chief Justice William Sullivan, "The evidence that the defendant sought to introduce was relevant to whether he reasonably believed that he is the chief of the Schaghticoke tribe, and therefore reasonably believed that he had the right to prevent interference with the reopening of the pavilion."
The state attorney's office decided against going to trial again, noting that Velky had already served the terms of his probation. Assistant State's Attorney Andrew Wittstein also told a local paper that "the complaining witness is no longer able to testify."
Velky, said Wittstein, "now has the presumption of innocence, and there the case rests."