Newly recognized Pequots must next form government

Staff Reports
6/28/02

LANTERN HILL RESERVATION, Conn. ? Connecticut's newly recognized Eastern Pequot American Indian tribe must form a government from its two feuding factions before it can pursue development plans, experts said.

The tribes said they would carefully review a nearly 200-page ruling from the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs and consult with lawyers before deciding what course to take.

Either of the tribe's factions, formerly called the Eastern Pequots and the Paucatuck Eastern Pequots, could appeal the BIA's decision, as could area towns, other tribes and the state. An appeal, and possible federal court action, could take years to be resolved, and leaders of both Pequot groups seem more concerned with celebrating their new hard-won federal status.

At a June 24 press conference, Eastern Pequot Chairwoman Marcia Jones Flowers said, "Today we begin a new journey, one which gives us the opportunity to work closely with our many neighbors in a cooperative effort to address our mutual problems. We welcome these new challenges and look forward to open and honest discussions about the issues we all face.

"While our legal status is about to change, our goals and our needs are not. We know we have much to do, but today we will stop and give thanks to the Great Spirit who has sustained us in this long journey and who will continue to guide our way into the future."

The factions share the 224-acre Lantern Hill Reservation in North Stonington, granted by the Connecticut legislature in 1683 even before the colony became a state. The dispute has pitted the Sebastian family, prominent in the larger Eastern Pequot tribe, against the Cunha family, leaders of the Paucatuck Eastern Pequots. Members of both families live on the reservation, in separate sections just a tenth of a mile apart.

The controversy focuses on the matriarch of the Sebastian line four generations back named Tamer Brushell who introduced a West Indian heritage into the tribe. Although the Paucatucks have denied that Tamer "and her voodoo ways" was a legitimate Pequot, the BIA recognition on June 24 firmly settled the issue. Leaders of the two groups have since exchanged congratulatory phone calls and say they are committed to working out their differences.

Both groups have a powerful economic incentive to consolidate their recognition. While pursuing recognition over the past few decades, each faction struck separate agreements with casino developers. Federal recognition gives tribes the right to negotiate with states to open casinos and provides tribes with other cultural, health and welfare benefits.

Neither developer ? Donald Trump, who has an agreement with the Paucatuck faction through a Connecticut-based businessman, or David Rosow, who has worked with the old Eastern Pequot faction ? responded to requests for comment.

Each faction also has separate constitutions, membership rules and other regulations.

Experts on American Indian law said such rifts are common among other tribes, but factions have found creative ways to craft governments for the tribe as a whole.

Federal law allows tribes to decide for themselves how they will be governed and who the members will be.

The federal government could try to assert its authority, however, if it appears the new tribal government is unfair, said Nell Newton, dean of the University of Connecticut Law School and an expert on Federal Indian law.

The lawyer for the Paucatuck faction, Eric Eberhard, said the BIA helped many tribes get organized after recognition decisions.

"There will be some complex issues to work through, but it can be done; other tribes have done it," Eberhard said.

The Paucatucks have about 150 members, while the Easterns number around 1,000.

Any new government, however, does not have to operate under a one man, one vote system. Other tribes around the country have set up voting districts along political lines, religious lines or in other ways to accommodate the minority. The Minnesota Chippewa, for example, are five autonomous bands within one tribe that come together when dealing with the federal government, Eberhard said. The Shoshone and Arapaho tribes in Wyoming, historical enemies who were placed together on the Wind River reservation, have separate business councils and cultural needs but also govern together, Newton said.

In the case of the Eastern Pequots, the factions may have become even more bitterly divided because they pursued separate federal recognition petitions, Eberhard said. The Eastern Pequots filed a letter of intent to apply for federal acknowledgment in 1978. The Paucatuck Eastern Pequots filed in 1989.

Once a government is worked out, the tribe can pursue taking land into trust for development of a casino, housing and other needs. They would have to negotiate with the state for an agreement on how any casino would operate. Any casino would be put on land taken into trust by the federal government on behalf of the tribes. The tribe could take their current state reservation into trust, plus any additional land for casinos or other development, said Bethany Berger, an expert on Indian law at UConn law school.

The federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act prohibits casinos on land bought after 1988 unless it is contiguous to or part of a tribe's historic reservation, or if the land is obtained to settle a land claim, Berger said. Land can also be taken into trust for casino development any place where the state, local and tribal leaders agree a casino would be beneficial, she said. The law sets up the possibility that a casino could be built in Bridgeport, a depressed industrial city further west along the coast, or other areas that want it, she said.

"It could happen that they would buy land in Bridgeport and try to have it taken into trust, but the federal government is unlikely to let it happen unless it's supported by state and local governments," Berger said.

State Sen. Alvin Penn, D-Bridgeport, co-chairman of the Public Safety Committee, which has jurisdiction over state gambling issues, has tried and failed to pass a bill to create an Office of State Tribal Relations. The office would advise the state on tribal sovereignty, land claims and gaming compacts.

"We have a lot of unanswered questions," Penn said. "There are so many things we're not prepared for and we should have been."

Gov. John G. Rowland said he is not taking a position on any appeal of the BIA decision, but he was pessimistic about any more casinos. "We've got two pretty big casinos that are growing every day," Rowland said. "I would hate to see more casinos anywhere in the state."

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