Eastern Pequots elect chairwoman, endorse development plan

North Stonington — In the 1970s, before tribal sovereignty and gaming became inextricably linked, the Eastern Pequot Tribe began pursuing federal recognition.   

The tribe’s new leader, Katherine Sebastian Dring, has no intention of abandoning the quest.

“For native people, the cause is never-ending,” she said Saturday, shortly after her election as chairwoman of the Easterns’ tribal council. “We will never give up.”

The tribe seemed tantalizingly close in 2002 when the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, in a preliminary decision, recognized the “Historical Eastern Pequot Tribe,” a ruling that Connecticut and the towns of North Stonington, Preston and Ledyard contested.

In 2005, upon reconsideration, the tribe’s recognition was denied.

Sebastian Dring, daughter of a tribal chief, said the Easterns reject the notion that new regulations governing the federal-recognition process have effectively extinguished the tribe’s prospects.

“I really don’t like to hear that,” she said. “We feel confident that there are still avenues for us to regain our federal recognition.”

She recalled that the tribe’s original motivation to pursue recognition was to secure federal aid for health, education and housing programs as well as possible economic development. Opening a casino wasn’t even a possibility then.

In Saturday’s tribal elections, Sebastian Dring was the only candidate for the top leadership position. She succeeded Dennis Jenkins, who did not seek re-election to the council.

Larry Pemberton and Tyrone Gambrell were elected to fill vacancies, giving the panel 10 members. Four vacancies remain.

The voting took place during the tribe’s annual meeting at its “longhouse” in the Holly Green Plaza on Route 2. Sebastian Dring said a “pretty good turnout” of 70 to 80 tribal members attended.

She said they overwhelmingly endorsed the initial phase of a development project that calls for a cultural center and eventually tribal housing on the Easterns’ Lantern Hill reservation.

“It’s still in the planning stages,” she said. “We’re working with experts to develop and design an appropriate space. We’re hoping to hammer it out this year. We’ve spent many years identifying cultural sites and some of our historic artifacts, and we need a proper place to put them.”

The tribe has between 1,100 and 1,200 members, only about 30 of whom live on the reservation, Sebastian Dring said.

“Primarily, that’s because most of the reservation is undeveloped,” she said. “No paved roads, no electrical service, no water service. The tribal members who live there have had to pull family resources together to put in wells and whatever else they need. It’s tough, so we hope to be able to put that infrastructure in place.”

She estimated that 400 to 500 tribal members live within 15 miles of the reservation with most of the rest scattered throughout New England.

Sebastian Dring holds degrees in education and law and worked in development and as a grants adviser for the United Way of Southeastern Connecticut before taking early retirement. She said her most memorable work experiences have come in service to the tribe.

“I have some advocacy skills I’m very proud of,” she said.

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

Twitter: @bjhallenbeck

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