For tribes, federal recognition opens doors and gives them respect

In this file photo, Melissa Tantaquidgeon Zobel, medicine woman of the Mohegan tribe, leads the crowd by saying a prayer to bless the bronze that was laid at Howard T. Brown Memorial Park in Norwich on Friday June 15, 2012 for the Cast of the “Liberty Bell” is used. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day) Buy photo reprints
In this file photo, Rodney Butler, chairman of the Mashantucket Pequot tribe, is honored as the Eastern Connecticut Chamber of Commerce Citizen of the Year. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day) Buy photo reprints
In this file photo, Mitchel Ray, Chairman of the Eastern Pequot Tribal Council, is seen at the Eastern Pequot Powwow grounds in North Stonington on Friday, March 18, 2020. (Dana Jensen/The Day) Buy photo reprints

Federal recognition.

In the context of Native American tribes, the term means recognition, acceptance, and most importantly, respect, say the tribal leaders of southeastern Connecticut.

Not insignificant, of course, that federal recognition is also essential to a tribe’s pursuit of casino development, which can reshape a tribe’s fortunes. Such is the experience of the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes, respective owners of Foxwoods Resort Casino and Mohegan Sun, two of North America’s largest resort casinos.

But the prospect of gaming riches wasn’t even in the picture when the Mashantuckets, the Mohegans and the Eastern Pequots — who were recognized for a time in the early 2000s before a decision recognizing them was reversed — began, in the 1970s to consider state recognition.

The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, which allowed tribes to operate casinos on their reservations, was only enacted in 1988.

“We were in danger of losing our land forever,” said Rodney Butler, chairman of Mashantucket Pequot, of his tribe’s motivations for seeking state recognition. “Only a handful of Pequots remained on our reservation and by the time they passed the state was ready to take over the land. Back then, the most important thing was to fight for the land and have a housing base.”

“Without federal recognition, our very existence was in jeopardy,” Butler said.

The Mashantuckets went to court to reclaim lands the state took from them in the 19th century, eventually securing federal recognition as part of the Mashantucket Pequot Indian Land Claims Settlement Act, passed by Congress and signed by President Ronald Reagan on March 18 Signed October 1983.

With federal recognition comes sovereignty—the right of a tribe to govern itself—and the establishment of a government-to-government relationship with the United States. Many tribes lacking state recognition, including Connecticut’s state-recognized tribes other than the Mashantuckets and the Mohegans—the Eastern, the Schaghticokes of Kent, and the Golden Hill Paugussetts of Colchester and Trumbull—continue to fight.

Some people still cling to “an insane theory,” Butler said, that a casino was part of the Mashantuckets’ plan all along, that the tribe’s interest in government recognition had nothing to do with gambling.

“Even in 1988/89 we didn’t think about a casino,” he said. “Our goal was self-government.”

reversals of happiness

Both the Mohegans and the Eastern Pequots, who split from the Mashantucket Pequots after the Pequot War in the 17th century, first petitioned the Department of the Interior in 1978, the same year the Department adopted regulations governing the recognition process. In 1989, the Paucatuck Eastern Pequots, who occupied the same reservation as the Eastern Pequots, filed their own petition.

Interior recognized the Eastern Pequots and the Paucatuck Eastern Pequots as a single entity in 2002, the “Historical Eastern Pequot Tribe”. Forty months later, on October 12, 2005, the Department revoked the recognition after appeals from the state and the cities of Ledyard, North Stonington and Preston.

“First and foremost, the basis of federal recognition are the government services provided to recognized tribes,” said Mitchel Ray, Easterns chairman. “It means health care, economic development, a whole range of different services that affect Native Americans.”

The tribe owned 280 acres in the 17th century and currently maintains a 224-acre reservation. If recognized federally, Ray said, the tribe would seek to reclaim the 56 acres it lost.

“But we can’t do that until we’re recognized,” he said.

Some local resistance to the eastern states’ application for federal recognition was linked to the belief that it would have resulted in a third tribal casino in southeastern Connecticut. The fear was not unfounded given the willingness of well-known investors at the time to support the petitioning efforts of both the Eastern Pequots and the Paucatuck Eastern Pequots.

However, a casino was never the Eastern Pequots’ primary goal, according to Ray, who said building housing for tribesmen was the primary goal, although one that would have forced the tribe to acquire more land since so much of its reservation is unsuitable for Development. In an effort to keep its hopes of state recognition alive, the tribe avoids mentioning games.

“It’s not about a casino; it’s about tribal legitimacy,” said Larry Wilson, an eastern tribal councilor who helped put together an original petition.

With no government recognition, the tribe has only recently made some headway, securing government funding for infrastructure improvements on its reservation in 2021.

“We’re just starting to stand on our own two feet,” Ray said. “We’re trying to get to where we can take care of ourselves.”

The Mohegans were denied recognition in a 1989 “proposed finding” because there was insufficient evidence of the tribes’ social and political activities in the 1940s and 1950s, according to Melissa Tantaquidgeon Zobel, the tribe’s medicine woman and tribal historian, in her 1995 book “The Lasting of the Mohegans: Part I, The History of the Wolfmen.”

According to Zobel, at this point the tribe submitted further evidence of its continued existence since “historic times,” and the federal government conducted a field survey of the tribe in November 1993. The recognition was approved.

Two months later, after the recognition went into effect, tribal members and the public celebrated with a picnic at Fort Shantok, a site the Mohegans were able to retake from the state. Along with the recognition came later that year the settlement of the Mohegans’ land claim lawsuit against the federal government, which included the redevelopment of the former United Nuclear Corp. property. in Montville as a location for Mohegan Sun.

At this point, Foxwoods had been in operation for two years. The Mashantuckets, Zobel said, supported the Mohegans’ bid for federal recognition.

Zobel recalled that the failure to obtain federal recognition, which she believed would have amounted to a form of “wiping out,” played a big role at the time.

“It would have been terrible, especially for the elderly,” she said. “What if we had to tell them they’re not what they always thought they were?”

Seeing the elders’ facial expressions when they were officially recognized as Indians “made everything worthwhile,” Zobel said.

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