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Lacking federal recognition, Eastern Pequots struggle to get vaccinations

While the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes have been administering the COVID-19 vaccine to tribal members — and now, on a limited basis, to some of their casino employees — the Eastern Pequot Tribe has been struggling to get its elderly members vaccinated.

The Easterns’ chairwoman, Katherine Sebastian Dring, believes it’s another consequence of her tribe’s lack of federal recognition, a status the Mashantuckets and Mohegans have long enjoyed.

“Here we are, a state-recognized tribe with a reservation established in 1683, scientists have said we need to get vaccinated and we have not been acknowledged as an at-risk population,” Sebastian Dring said Friday. “As Native Americans, we are at risk. That’s a scientific fact.”

“It’s dishonorable to us,” she said. “We have been at odds with the state and federal governments ever since they took away our federal recognition.”

In 2005, the U.S. Department of the Interior reversed a preliminary decision granting the Easterns federal recognition, a decision the state and the towns of Ledyard, North Stonington and Preston had challenged.

The Easterns, ineligible for government allotments of the COVID-19 vaccine, reached out to the Mashantuckets, whose chairman, Rodney Butler, sought without success to have the Easterns included in the Mashantuckets’ vaccine allotment, according to Sebastian Dring, who said her tribe has an “active population” of elders in their 80s and 90s.

Eastern tribal leaders put the word out that tribal members eligible for the vaccine under state guidelines — currently those 75 and older, front-line health care workers and residents of long-term care facilities — should register with a health care provider and schedule a vaccine appointment on their own.

After much difficulty, Sebastian Dring said, she was able to secure an appointment for her 94-year-old father, Roy Sebastian, Chief Hockeo, the Easterns’ ceremonial leader, who got vaccinated Thursday at a Backus Hospital clinic near Dodd Stadium in Norwich. The Easterns are calling attention to the event in the hope that other tribal members will follow the chief’s lead.

Meanwhile, help could be on the way in the form of a vaccination clinic near the Easterns’ Lantern Hill reservation in North Stonington.

Stephen Mansfield, health director of Ledge Light Health District, said town-by-town vaccination statistics recently put out by the state Department of Public Health show low vaccination rates for New London and North Stonington. He said the district was working to schedule vaccination clinics in those municipalities next week and would announce details Monday.

The Easterns have 1,255 members, including about 700 living in Connecticut, most of them in New London County, Sebastian Dring said. The tribe has 262 elders over the age of 55, including 77 over 70.

Sebastian Dring could not say how many COVID-19 cases have been detected among tribal members or how many deaths among tribal members have been linked to the disease. She said the tribe is seeking to gather such information through a survey funded by a $7,000 grant from the NDN Collective, a nonprofit organization that helps indigenous groups. 

Jason Guyot, interim chief executive officer of the Mashantuckets’ Foxwoods Resort Casino, said Friday some casino workers have been vaccinated, including some younger than 75, though he declined to specify how many and their ages. He said the tribe has vaccinated a total of more than 700 people, including tribal members and employees of the casino and the tribal government.

“We’d rather just share the information that it’s over 700 and not get into breaking it down,” Guyot said. “First, I would say we’re not vaccinating anybody in their 20s. Based on the size of our community, we’ve been able to start vaccinating those under 75, but it’s being done strategically.”

He said the tribe’s priorities in administering the vaccine mirror those of the state of Connecticut and other states.

The Mashantuckets opted to receive their vaccine doses as part of the state’s allotment from the federal government. They have their own pharmacy director and health services, which operates like a local health department, according to Maura Fitzgerald, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Public Health.

“We have been told by their pharmacy director that they are vaccinating their tribal members and phase-eligible casino employees with the vaccine doses they have received,” she wrote in an email.

The Mohegans, on the other hand, chose to receive their vaccines directly from the federal Indian Health Services.

Jeff Hamilton, Mohegan Sun’s president and general manager, said the Mohegans have vaccinated tribal members and a small number of casino employees. He said Mohegan Sun has finalized an agreement with Yale New Haven Health to host a vaccination center in a portion of the casino’s Earth Expo & Convention Center. The center will serve the public as well as tribal members and employees.

Foxwoods plans to host a mass vaccination center in a partnership with Hartford HealthCare. Details have not been released.

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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