For Schaghticokes, the fight's not over

The chief of the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation said Monday the tribe's quest for federal recognition will not die, despite a federal ruling that rejected claims of undue political influence by Connecticut's top elected officials.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit ruled Monday that evidence the tribe offered against the governor, attorney general and state congressional delegation was "insufficient to raise a claim of 'improper political influence' " over the U.S. Department of Interior's Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The court also found that James E. Cason, the associate deputy secretary charged with making the Interior department's final determination on reconsideration, had the authority to do so. Cason is no longer with the department.

Federal recognition would make the tribe eligible to receive aid for health care, housing and education. It would also put the tribe on track to offer gaming. Connecticut already has two tribally-owned casinos - Foxwoods Resort Casino, operated by the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, and Mohegan Sun, run by the Mohegans.

"Without a doubt it's hurtful that the 2nd Circuit can't see the political influence involved here," said Schaghticoke Chief Richard Velky. "We have to get together with legal counsel and form a strategy. We don't plan on quitting, that's for sure. When these (politicians) go to Washington and demand that the decision be overturned, how can you not call that political pressure?"

The federal Bureau of Indian Affairs first granted the Schaghticokes recognition in 2004, but in 2005, state and federal officials successfully appealed. The tribe argued that politics played a key role in state and federal officials' appeal, and subsequently challenged that appeal.

Most recently, the tribe had charged that key officials had ex parte communications with the Interior department's top officials, Velky said.

Monday's ruling upholds the reversal of the 2004 BIA decision recognizing the tribe, but the tribe has a right to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, and may have other rights within the 2nd Circuit, Velky added.

Specifically, the judges found that in 2005 and afterwards, although Gov. M. Jodi Rell, Attorney General Richard Blumenthal and the state's congressional delegation showed "keen interest" in federal recognition, tribal evidence fails to show that the political pressure "was intended to and did cause" bias by Cason or his department.

"The essence of the decision is that the denial of recognition was correct on the facts and the law, and that the petition fails to meet the criteria necessary," Blumenthal said.

"The Schaghticoke Tribal Nation had no evidence that it existed continuously with consistent political authority or leadership over a very substantial period of time," he said. "That defect goes to the core or essence of the meaning of a tribe under federal law. All the rest of the tangential issues lacked merit."

The Schaghticokes have a 400-acre reservation in Kent and 278 members. Velky said Monday they are still interested in gaming, though they would not pursue economic development that wasn't wanted.

For every one of the 278 members identified in the original petition for federal recognition, "there was no doubt about their heritage," Velky insisted. "Their geneology was 100 percent. We are Schaghticoke people."

Velky also claimed that a press release issued Monday by Blumenthal "bordered on racism." It read: "This decision is the legal coup d' grace - finally putting this meritless petition out of its misery. ... Sovereign status must be granted only to groups that meet the explicit federal criteria, and the Schaghticoke have failed to meet those standards."

Countered Blumenthal: "The BIA found and the courts have concluded the group fails to meet the criteria for federal tribal recognition. My comments are directed only at the legal lack of merit. Tribal recognition has nothing to do with race, it has to do with continuous existence as a governing entity, which this group has completely failed to sustain."

The ruling confirmed that Connecticut's lawmakers, which at the time included former House Representatives Rob Simmons, Chris Shays, and Nancy Johnson, "met with and sent letters and e-mail to the Secretary of the Interior and other … officials expressing adamant opposition to the Interior Department's potential acknowledgement."

House and Senate subcommittees also held hearings at which members of Congress strongly criticized the original BIA decision favoring federal recognition.

At the time, members of Connecticut's congressional delegation said their meeting with then-Interior Secretary Gale Norton wasn't meant to win a reversal of the tribe's recognition, but rather was meant to raise concerns about the process and the possibility that casino gambling could spread in southeastern Connecticut.

U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, and Simmons' successor, issued a statement Monday saying, "The Court decision reaffirms the validity and the necessity of the BIA process, which I believe must be followed to assure the fair hearing of claims for all parties."

Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar is reviewing the decision, said Kendra Barkoff, a press secretary.

In August, Jim Cunha, chairman of the North Stonington-based Eastern Pequot Tribal Nation, said his tribe remains focused on gaining federal recognition. Cunha declined comment on the Schaghticoke decision and said he had no updates on his own tribe's plans.

p.daddona@theday.com

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