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In Osten, state's tribes have a rare — and effective — advocate

During the 2021 legislative session and its immediate aftermath, state Sen. Cathy Osten’s politics were tribal.

Literally.

She continued to champion the legalization of sports betting and online gaming that the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes had been seeking. She managed to secure a place for Native American history in public school curriculums, and she won the removal of a statue much loathed by Pequots from the state Capitol’s exterior. She pushed through a budget provision that encourages public schools in the state to abandon Native American mascots that many consider inappropriate, if not offensive.

And, she landed $3 million worth of pork for the Eastern Pequots, the Schaghticokes and the Golden Hill Paugussetts.

“It wasn’t my first session,” Osten, the Sprague Democrat, said. “It was my luckiest.”

Indeed, the “stars were aligned” for legislative action on gaming expansion this year, as Rodney Butler, the Mashantucket chairman, said amid the final round of negotiations among Butler; his Mohegan counterpart, James Gessner Jr.; Gov. Ned Lamont; and their lieutenants. As she had in previous years, Osten submitted a bill prior to the start of the session calling for the tribes to be granted the exclusive right to offer sports betting and online gaming in the state.

When Lamont announced in early March that his office had reached an agreement with the Mohegans but not the Mashantuckets — an agreement that provided the Connecticut Lottery Corp. with a piece of the sports-betting action — Osten and the other members of the legislature’s eastern Connecticut delegation cried foul.

“I had to make sure the governor knew the legislature was not going to approve a deal with one tribe and not the other,” said Osten, who took issue with what she called the “divide and conquer” strategy Lamont employed in going public with the Mohegans’ acceptance of the agreement in a bid to compel the Mashantuckets to fall in line.

“Cathy was helpful in keeping everybody at the table,” Gessner said. “It was a negotiation among the tribes and the governor, but people knew that whatever we agreed to was going to the legislature. People knew Cathy had a bill and was doing press conferences. Her message was, ‘You figure it out or I’m gonna.’”

The Mohegans and the Mashantuckets, the only federally recognized, sovereign Indian tribes in Connecticut, have rarely, if ever, had an advocate like Osten in either Hartford or Washington, D.C. Gessner said one would have to go back to the days of former U.S. Sen. Chris Dodd, while Butler suggested the tribes haven’t seen such “passionate support” since Ella Grasso was governor and U.S. Rep. Sam Gejdenson represented eastern Connecticut.

“To have a legislator like Cathy — a non-native — in your corner is really something,” Gessner said. “People say Deb Haaland (the Native American who heads the U.S. Department of the Interior, which oversees Indian affairs) will look at things differently because she’s native, but Cathy isn’t and she still gets it."

“She’s always been someone who looks at us as a large family, not just a large business,” he said. “When people refer to us as the ‘Mohegan Sun Tribe,’ it just drives me crazy.”

First elected to the state Senate in 2012, Osten, now in her fifth term, said she soon came to understand that Connecticut had more or less abandoned the five tribes it legally recognizes. In addition to the Mohegans and the Mashantuckets, the list includes three tribes that lack the federal recognition that allows a tribe to pursue tribal gaming: the Eastern Pequots of North Stonington; the Schaghticokes of Kent and the Golden Hill Paugussetts, who have reservation lands in Trumbull and Colchester.

Their plight piqued Osten’s interest.

“There’s a statute that says the state is responsible for these tribes, but we hadn’t been complying with it, which isn’t unusual in the case of an old statute,” she said.

In the 1970s, an amendment to the statute created the Connecticut Indian Affairs Council, an eight-member body comprising a representative of each of the five tribes and three non-native members appointed by the governor. An online listing of current members identifies one, Shoran Piper of the Paugussetts. Seven seats are vacant.

“It’s not operational. It hasn’t met for a number of years, probably more than 10 years,” Edith Pestana, administrator of the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection’s Environmental Justice Program, said of the council. It’s possible the council hasn’t met since the Mashantuckets and the Mohegans were federally recognized decades ago — despite a requirement it file an annual report, she said.

Sen. Heather Somers, the Groton Republican, introduced a bill in the recent legislative session that sought to reconvene the council “and clarify the state’s responsibilities with regard to maintaining and providing services to the reservations in the state.” The measure stalled in the Committee on Government Administration and Elections.

Visiting the reservations 

Osten has demonstrated that her advocacy for tribes extends beyond the boundaries of her 19th Senate District, which encompasses the Mashantucket and Mohegan reservations and their respective casinos, Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun. In an interview, she recalled meeting Richard Velky, the Schaghticoke chief, at a legislative hearing. At the time, Velky opposed the state’s support of the casino-owning tribes’ efforts to develop a third Connecticut casino.

After the state enacted a law authorizing the Mashantuckets and the Mohegans to form a joint venture and to start seeking casino site proposals, MGM Resorts International and the Schaghticokes filed separate lawsuits in federal court. MGM, a nemesis of the southeastern Connecticut tribes, bankrolled the Schaghticokes' challenge. Neither suit was successful.

“I went down and saw their reservation in Kent,” Osten said of the Schaghticokes. “We just talked, and not about gaming. ... I told Velky to take as much money from MGM as you can.”

Velky showed Osten a tribal burial ground that has been susceptible to flooding for decades, a problem and a funding need she filed away. Osten visited the Golden Hill Paugussett and Eastern Pequot reservations, too, adding those tribes’ requests for assistance to a list of legislative initiatives she’s pursued year after year.

In June, after the legislature approved the state budget, Osten, co-chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee, saw to it that the accompanying “implementer” bill included funding for three tribal construction projects: $1 million for a retaining wall at the Schaghticoke cemetery; $1.5 million for a well, a septic system and an access road for the Eastern Pequots; and $500,000 for a community building for the Paugussetts.

Osten also relied on the implementer to advance a measure requiring local school boards to include Native American history in their social studies curriculums, starting in the 2023-24 academic year, and a provision linking municipal Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan Fund grants to a ban on public schools’ use of Native American mascots. Osten had submitted bills to accomplish both purposes, neither of which got a hearing.

Osten also had introduced legislation calling for the relocation of a statue of Maj. John Mason, a controversial figure who led English forces against the Pequots in the 1637 “Massacre at Mystic,” the Pequot War’s pivotal battle. In passing the state budget, legislators approved funding to have the statue moved from the state Capitol’s façade to the Old State House in Hartford.

It was another instance in which an initiative was approved without having been publicly vetted.

Osten makes no apologies, noting that the implementer process has been in place for quite some time. She said she believes all of the Native American-related initiatives had bipartisan support and would have been approved if they’d been put to individual votes.

For the tribes, the teaching of Native American history was the most important of the tribal matters she got behind, Osten said.

“They want to be incorporated in Connecticut’s history,” she said. “As someone told me, ‘History has to be told by those who came on the boats and those who already were on shore.'”

Heavy-handed methods?

Osten said the Mashantuckets and the Eastern Pequots brought up the Mason statue soon after she took office. Pursuing it required navigating some lingering delicacy between the Pequots and the Mohegans, who were aligned with the English during the Pequot War but who, Osten said, took no part in the Mason-led slaughter of Pequot women and children.

The Mohegans issued a statement in support of the statue’s removal.

Osten’s critics point to the linkage between the ban on Native American mascots and municipal grants as an example of what they consider Osten’s penchant for heavy-handedness.

The ban would prevent any municipality in which a public school uses a Native American “name, symbol or image” as “a mascot, nickname, logo or team name” from receiving a Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan Fund grant. The grants come from the state’s 25% share of the gross slot-machine revenues the tribal casinos generate.

Should a town whose teams “disrespect” tribes expect to benefit from the revenue they produce?

Osten said the notion of tying the grants to the ban on Native American mascots came from somebody “outside the legislature,” but she declined to say who.

"It's a little bit poetic from my perspective,” she said of the linkage.

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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