Connecticut chief responds to staged 'takeover' of land

Gale Courey Toensing
1/18/06

KENT, Conn. -- Schaghticoke Tribal Nation Chief Richard Velky has issued a
statement in response to a weeklong national media blitz following a staged
"takeover" of the tribe's reservation by his cousin, Alan Russell.

"I am the duly elected chief of the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation, the tribal
entity which maintains an unbroken history of governance of the
Schaghticoke nation. We have the documents to prove it. It is important to
note that Alan Russell is my cousin and is part of the Schaghticoke nation.
The Schaghticoke Tribal Nation maintains an open attitude toward all
Schaghticoke, including the 14 remaining Schaghticoke members of this
splinter group," Velky wrote.

The nation "does not welcome" some of the actions Russell and his group
have taken, Velky said, cautioning the public to remember that the faction
consists of less than 5 percent of the Schaghticoke community.

The episode that sparked all the attention took place on Dec. 29 when
Russell; his attorney, Kevin Quill; his sister, Gail Harrison; and a group
of unidentified people with New York state license plates appeared at the
pavilion and tribal office on the reservation, and announced they were
"taking over" the reservation, setting up an office and intended to begin
their "economic development plan" there.

According to Quill, Russell asked him to be present and called the police
to the scene, claiming he was worried that "the property was going to be
damaged because Velky and his people had taken certain liberties."

The media were also notified and a local online news site posted a story
within hours of the event, and the story of a "reservation take over"
spread rapidly through the country and cyberspace.

Russell claims to be the true chief of the only authentic tribe -- the
Schaghticoke Indian Tribe. According to documents filed with the BIA, the
Schaghticoke Indian Tribe changed its name to the Schaghticoke Tribal
Nation at a membership meeting in 1991 when it formed a nonprofit
corporation.

Last October, the BIA reversed the 300-member Schaghticoke Tribal Nation's
federal acknowledgement after more than a year of fierce opposition and
lobbying by Connecticut politicians who feared the tribe would decide to
open the state's third casino.

Russell's group has a pending recognition petition of its own. As an
intervener in the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation's recognition process with
access to its petition, Russell copied the document and submitted it as a
separate petition for the Schaghticoke Indian Tribe. Quill, his attorney,
acknowledged in early January that Russell had copied the tribal nation's
petition but, he said, "It belongs to my client."

Velky said the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation is the "tribe of record" dating
back to the 1600s and recognized by the state of Connecticut as the
sovereign political tribe of Schaghticoke Indians.

The state Department of Environmental Protection, which holds the
reservation in trust for the tribe, acknowledged the tribe and Velky's
leadership as recently as June 2002. At that time, former Commissioner
Arthur Rocque issued a letter, saying, in part: "Inasmuch as [Velky] has
represented the Schaghticoke Tribe in matters before this department for
approximately 13 years and inasmuch as the Connecticut Indian Affairs
Council has not accepted a challenge to the Schaghticoke Tribal seat, I see
no reason to question the validity of your leadership at this time."

The family feud dates back to the 1970s, a time of political turmoil when
alliances formed along family lines vying for leadership and authority over
the land, according to BIA and court documents.

Russell was chairman at one point, and later was recalled. There were
allegations of illegal meetings and fake votes, a lawsuit and, at one
point, two councils. The issues were resolved when the Freedom of
Information Commission upheld the legitimacy of an election in 1985 in
which Russell was ousted, according to BIA and court documents.

In a deposition taken on March 16, 1987, in a case involving Russell's
unauthorized logging on the reservation, Russell himself testified that he
had been ousted.

"I was tribal chairman. I lost my position there. I wanted to be elected
again as tribal chairman ... In July 1985, [Irving Harris] became the
tribal chairman," Russell said.

Although the tribal nation acknowledges the 14 individuals, who consist
mainly of Russell and Harrison's children and grandchildren, as
Schaghticoke Indians, Velky said they have not yet submitted the required
documentation to be enrolled members of the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation.

"This splinter group consists of 14 individuals, including Alan Russell, a
self-proclaimed chief, along with his sister, Gail Harrison, a self
proclaimed vice-chairman. As chief of the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation, it is
my duty and obligation, along with the tribal council, to enforce and
uphold the tribal constitution," Velky said.

However, the enrollment requirement has been put aside for the moment,
Velky said.

"In an effort to allow open dialogue, the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation has
temporarily waived the requirements to submit documentation of their
lineage for the 14 Schaghticoke individuals and will continue to allow them
equal access to the tribal lands in northwestern Connecticut," Velky said.

Schaghticoke Tribal Nation members are constantly at the reservation and
will notify the tribe if any unauthorized activity takes place on the land,
Velky said.

Meanwhile, the tribal attorneys planned meet a Jan. 12 deadline to file an
appeal of the BIA's decision to reverse the tribe's federal
acknowledgement.

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