Schaghticoke Meeting House Torched by Arson
KENT, Conn. – The only building on the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation’s reservation where tribal members could gather has been destroyed by fire.
The Connecticut State Police Major Crime Squad is investigating the blaze that devastated the structure – a wooden pavilion that was used both as a longhouse for ceremonies and for social gatherings. The building stood at the center of the nation’s 400-acre reservation on Schaghticoke Mountain. Police have determined that the fire was arson and have posted a notice offering $2,500 for information about the arsonist.
The fire took place on November 14 around 10:30 p.m., according to police documents. There were no human injuries, but the 60-foot x 22-foot structure that tribal members call “the pavilion” was heavily damaged, police said. “During the course of the investigation, Fire Marshall Stan MacMillan, along with Connecticut State police detectives assigned to the Fire and Explosion Investigation Unity determined that the fire had been intentionally set,” the police said.
Schaghticoke Tribal Nation Chief Richard Velky and tribal council member Chuck Kilson said they spent much of the rest of the week after the fire on the reservation. They said they were both saddened and outraged at the loss of the pavilion.
“What it took away from the tribe is our meeting place. We’ve had different ceremonies held in that longhouse and now we’re without a place to gather on our own land,” Velky said. Tribal members cleared the land and built the pavilion in the early 1970s with materials provided by the state since the state is responsbile for buildings on reservations in Connecticut, Velky said. “A lot of the elders who are not with us any longer helped build it. It was a community event and it was successful. Those people aren’t with us anymore and neither is the buiding because of the arsonist who destroyed it.”
Kilson, a volunteer firefighter in another Connecticut town, commended the local Kent fire company for their quick action in battling the flames. “If it wasn’t for their quick response, the building would have been a pile of ashes and there wouldn’t have been any evidence left to help them find out who did it,” Kilson.
The fire is the latest act of destruction that has plagued the troubled STN reservation since January 2004 when the BIA issued a Final Determination granting the Nation federal acknowledgment. The tribe came under immediate attack from both the State of Connecticut and a faction calling itself the Schaghticoke Indian Tribe led by Allen Russell, who lives on the reservation less than a quarter of a mile from the destroyed pavilion, and a handful of his immediate relatives.
Following the tribe’s acknowledgment, former Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, now a U.S. senator, went into immediate attack mode, working with the rest of the Connecticut delegation and a group of wealthy Kent landowners and their powerful Washington lobbyist to overturn the Nation’s federal status. They succeeded on Columbus Day in October 2005 when the BIA reversed, in an unprecedented move, took back its decision to recognize the STN.
Russell also went into immediate attack mode after the tribe was recognized. He brought a non-Indian friend, Michael Rost, to live on the reservation and had Rost bring gigantic boulders onto the reservation and stack them around and against the pavilion, damaging the building and putting childen and other tribal members at risk, according to court documents. Both men were arrested in March 2004 and charged with risk of endangerment and criminal mischief. The court later dropped charges against Russell, but found Rost guilty of reckless endangerment and disturbing the peace, and ordered him off the reservation for 18 months.
When he returned some time in 2007, Rost claimed that Russell’s sister, Gail Harrison, had authorized him to build a pyramid on top of the mountain, according to Department of Environmental (DEP) documents. He began tearing up swaths of soil with bulldozers and other heavy earth-moving equipment, desecrating burial sites in the process. He cut down dozens of trees, gouged out roads near the dens of endangered rattlesnakes—the tribe’s symbolic protector—and lacerated the mountainside, destroying streams and a vernal pool. Throughout this time, the DEP ignored multiple appeals from Velky and STN’s tribal council to issue a cease-and-desist order to protect the reservation land against Rost’s depredations, and the state police refused to act. The agencies were directed by Blumenthal, who claimed that a “leadership dispute” in the tribe prevented the state from acting on the reservation.
Last May a Superior Court judge ordered Rost to leave the reservation and affirmed the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation as the tribe’s governing authority and Velky as its chief. Appeals filed by both Allen and Rost are pending in state appellate court.
Velky said the previous state government set the conditions for the unabated destruction of the Schaghticoke reservation. “This was arson, it was deliberately set. My feeling is it was because of the atmosphere created by the State of Connecticut under Dick Blumenthal and former Gov. Jodi Rell where there’s no law and order, people are threatened not just bodily, but also mentally, where the land has been destroyed, our artifacts have been churned up, burials sites desecrated, the list goes on and on and it’s been going on since 2004 when the State of Connecticut chose all of a sudden to recognize this group of 11 people versus 300 enrolled members who were acknowledged federally.”
Velky said he has conveyed information about who he believes is the arsonist to the Connecticut State Police, the DEP conservation officer and the fire marshal and is awaiting a report from the state. Meanwhile, he has contacted Gov. Dan Malloy’s office to begin the process of rebuilding the pavilion.
Lt. Paul Vance, the Connecticut State Police Public Information Officer, said the investigation is ongoing. “They’ll interview everyone, they’ve documented the scene and sent evidence to the laboratory.” He said chances are good that the arsonist will be caught. “You’d be absolutely amazed. With science today we’re able to make tremendous strides in solving arson cases. The troopers assigned to that unit are experts in their field – not only are they investigators; they’re also fire marshals so they know how to examine fires and find the evidence and we work very closely with the local marshal. So the success rate is fairly good,” Vance said.
The fire occurred during the tribe’s traditional deer hunting season when tribal members hunting on Schaghticoke Mountain usually sleep in the enclosed south end of the pavilion. Velky said the hunt is continuing and innkeeper Tom Zaccara, who owns the nearby Bull’s Bridge Inn, has “generously” offered the hunters rooms at the inn.