NEW HAVEN, Conn. (WTNH) – A proposed change to how Indians are recognized by the federal government could mean big changes for Connecticut.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs is considering changes, in part, that would consider whether states recognize tribes or not.
In the case of Connecticut, three tribes have been recognized by the state but have failed to gain federal recognition: The Golden Hill Paugussett tribe, the Schaghticoke tribe and the Eastern Pequot tribe.
Under the new rules, they will be given federal recognition. Clan Mother Sharon Piper of the Golden Hill tribe says they are interested in education, healthcare and other federal benefits.
Many politicians, including State Representative Arthur O’Neill (R-69th District) does not believe them.
“The pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is the ability to open up a casino,” said O’Neill.
In 1993, when a member of the Golden Hill tribe made land claims in several Connecticut towns, O’Neill was among those fighting the tribe. Those claims put some 1,200 mortgages at risk. O’Neill warns if the tribes are recognized, the same thing will happen again.
“They would make the claims that would create chaos and huge and anxiety,” said O’Neill. “[Land claims would cause] chaos in the real estate market.”
Members of the Golden Hill tribe deny they are interested in land claims.
“No, we’re not going to go around bulldozing and uprooting everybody, putting this here there or everywhere,” said Piper.
Same story from the Schaghticoke tribe.
“It doesn’t mean they’re going to go out and grab up everybody’s land,” said tribal member Trudie Lamb. “There are tribal people chomping at the bit waiting to move onto the reservation.”
Despite this, O’Neill, Governor Malloy, Attorney General George Jepsen, and the entire Connecticut delegation have written letters challenging the rule changes.
“There is something very untoward about this whole treatment by our congressional delegation, our governor, of the three tribes at the expense of these two tribes who have these very lucrative casinos,” said Charlie Brilvitch, a Bridgeport historian and author of “A History of Connecticut’s Golden Hill Paugussett Tribe.”
The two tribes that have been federally recognized, The Mashantucket Pequot and the Mohegan tribe have not spoken publicly about the proposed changes. They have, however, donated money to Connecticut politicians who oppose the plan.
According to Federal Trade Commission records, Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd, has accepted more than a dozen donations from members of the two tribes. He opposes changing the plan.
“That is watering down the standards to the point that there is almost no standards left,” said Courtney in his Washington D.C. office.
Asked whether the donations had any influence on his decision, Courtney said ‘no’. “Like so many other people in Eastern Connecticut who have made the decision to support my campaign, they’ve made that decision as well.”
Rep. John Larson, D-1st, too, has taken campaign cash from tribes. He has taken more than $45,000 since 2000. He denied any influence from the campaign donations on his decision to oppose the plan.
“I think it has something to do with the revenue the state gets from the two casinos,” said Brillvitch.
If a new casino were to be built in the state, the two existing tribes would not have to pay the state the multi-millions that they do currently.
A preliminary set of rules is expected by July. The rules then go through a comment period before a final decision is made.
This is a story we’ve covered for decades on News 8, from when the Mashantucket Pequots first sought recognition and began talks about building what would become Foxwoods. In this story below, News 8 reporter Jayne Saffer looks at the reaction in the Ledyard area after the Mashantucket Pequots received federal recognition.
And in this story, News 8 reporter Sally Ann Mosey has reaction to a land claims case in Southbury, and it’s possible effect on other cities and towns.