Controversial sovereignty issue to be explored in panel discussion

Mashantucket — Much has changed since the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe won federal recognition in 1983, but confusion over the long-misunderstood concepts of tribal sovereignty, indigenous rights and tribal citizenship have endured.

Hoping to shed some light, the Mashantucket Pequot Museum & Research Center is inviting the public to a panel discussion Saturday, bringing together scholars, attorneys and tribal officials in what some have billed as a summit on sovereignty.

It's part of a special focus of the museum, according to Jason Mancini, the museum's senior researcher.

"We've been trying to confront more aggressively the issues that affect the tribe, the tribal community and the discourse that's going on between the tribe and surrounding communities," Mancini said. "We've had some important exhibits, beginning with one on race a couple of summers ago and last year's 'Pequot Lives in the Lost Century,' " which aimed to fill a gap in the telling of the tribe's story.

Discussion of the topics that figure to come up Saturday sometimes grows heated, Mancini acknowledged. "But," he said, "we're hoping it doesn't become confrontational."

Controversy over such things as tribal sovereignty and tribal authenticity is linked to the wealth and power some casino-owning tribes have amassed, chiefly the Mashantucket Pequots, whose Foxwoods Resort Casino, including MGM Grand at Foxwoods, is the largest casino in North America.

Mancini said he believes the change in the tone and substance of the discourse in recent years is partly jealousy over the financial windfall conferred by the casinos and partly a lack of understanding about the concepts Saturday's panel will tackle.

In just the last year, tribal sovereignty has been a factor or at least a topic of discussion in negotiations between the state and the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes regarding restrictions on smoking at the tribes' casinos and in the Mashantuckets' negotiation of a union contract under tribal law. It has been noted, too, that the Mashantucket tribe's status as a sovereign nation precludes it from seeking bankrupty protection while restructuring debt.

Saturday's panelists will include John Echohawk, president and founder of the Native American Rights Foundation; James Jackson, a Mashantucket Pequot tribal councilor; Jackson King, the tribe's general counsel; Betsy Conway, the tribe's legal counsel; and Cedric Woods, interim director of the Institute for New England Native American Studies at UMass Boston.

J. Kehaulani Kauanui, associate professor of American Studies at Wesleyan University, will moderate. Prior to the panel on sovereignty, Kauanui will lead a discussion of her recent book "Hawaiian Blood: Colonialism and the Politics of Sovereignty and Indigeneity."

The museum is anticipating a healthy turnout, with members of New England tribes, including the Mohegans and the Narragansetts, expected to attend.

If you go:

WHAT: "Sovereignty and Indigenous Rights," a panel discussion

WHERE: Mashantucket Pequot Museum & Research Center, 110 Pequot Trail, Mashantucket

WHEN: 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday

ADMISSION: Free with museum admission, which is $15 for adults and $13 for seniors (55 and older); free to museum members. High school and college students receive $2 admission discount with student ID.


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