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He found himself and his tribe. Now they seek federal recognition.

North Stonington — Mitchel Ray’s path to the chairmanship of the Eastern Pequot Tribe and the tribe’s decadeslong quest for federal recognition have much in common.

Both have been fraught with challenges.

Born to a single mother who struggled to care for him, Ray spent the first four years of his life in and out of foster homes. Then, following his adoption by a single Black woman, he grew up in a predominantly white area of Norwalk, attending Trinity Catholic High School in Stamford.

He started college at Hampton University in Virginia, an all-Black institution where, he said, he “hoped to immerse myself in my culture.” In his second year at Hampton, he set about finding his birth mother, with whom he’d lost contact.

Ray, 41, elected chairman of the Eastern Pequot Tribal Council last September, discussed his story last week in an interview on the tribe’s Wrights Road reservation. A few days earlier, he’d shared an account of it with a state legislative committee considering a bill that would ensure the federal Indian Child Welfare Act, or ICWA, applies to child custody, placement, adoption and termination of parental rights proceedings involving members of state-recognized tribes.

Adopted in 1978 amid a crisis in Indian Country, the federal law already applies to Connecticut’s federally recognized tribes, the Mashantucket Pequots and the Mohegans, but not explicitly to the three other state-recognized tribes that lack federal recognition: the Easterns, the Schaghticokes of Kent and the Golden Hill Paugussetts of Colchester and Trumbull.

Ray believes he put off searching for his roots as long as he did out of respect for his adoptive mother, Brenda Ray, a former nursing supervisor at Stamford Hospital.

When he approached the state Department of Children and Families seeking to learn about his past, Ray knew little beyond the identity of his birth mother, Maria Jackson, who lived in New London. Ray would learn that she was one of five siblings, all of whom were enrolled members of the Eastern Pequot Tribe and all of whom were placed in foster care at a young age.

Ray’s mother, who was 18 when she gave birth to him, met his father while she was in foster care. Ray has never met him.

Surprisingly, Ray said, the DCF was able to locate his tribal relatives in a relatively short time, partly because the department discovered a first cousin of Ray’s had searched for family members a few years earlier, leaving a file.

Ray, who still lives in Norwalk, was reunited with his tribe in 2002, around the time the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs issued a decision granting the Easterns federal recognition. Three years later, amid an appeal joined by the state and the towns of Ledyard, North Stonington and Preston, the acknowledgment was reversed.

While his mother, her brothers and her sisters "never made it out of foster care," Ray wrote in a statement, he was fortunate to have been adopted. Now serving as his birth mother’s conservator, he attributes her mental health issues to the trauma she experienced in foster care and having to surrender her only child.

Valerie Gambrell, a retired DCF social worker and current Eastern Pequot tribal councilor, testified in support of the bill, whose passage, she said, would enable tribes to ensure that tribal children taken from their birth families stay connected to their tribes.

Gambrell recounted the case of a young Eastern Pequot girl who, while living in foster care, would return to the reservation to participate in the tribe’s annual powwow, summoning Gambrell to watch her dance.

“Since she was adopted, I’ve never seen that child,” Gambrell said.

Last year, Gambrell and Ray broached the subject with state Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, who brought their concerns to the legislature’s Human Services Committee, which raised Bill No. 5336. As written, the measure would require the DCF commissioner to ensure that the removal of Indian children from their families and the placement of such children in foster and adoptive homes are conducted in accordance with ICWA.

Osten said representatives of the Schaghticokes and the Golden Hill Paugussetts registered support for the bill, which encountered no opposition at a March 10 public hearing.

“It’s more about closing a loophole than anything,” Osten said. “Going back a number of years, extended tribal families weren’t always considered when a child was taken. Oftentimes, family members would have wanted to take the child in.”

In the early 20th century, state statutes allowed for “poor” tribal children living “idly” or “exposed to want” to be indentured “to some proper trade” until adulthood. Ray said his research found the practice continued long after 1924, when all Native Americans born in the United States became U.S. citizens.

ICWA can ensure tribal children removed from their birth homes remain in contact with their tribe and can ensure tribes approve the foster homes in which children are placed, Ray said. 

After connecting with his tribe, Ray began pulling together his past, largely with the help of an uncle, Ron “Wolf” Jackson, a former tribal councilor.

“I soaked up everything like a sponge,” Ray said. “But because I wasn’t on the (tribe’s) rolls, I had to limit my involvement.”

On the advice of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the tribe had closed its rolls to new members while its application for federal recognition was being dealt with, according to Ray. The tribe reopened its rolls around 2010.

Once enrolled, Ray got more involved. He began serving on the tribe’s Wuttooantam Foundation, a nonprofit that raises money for tribal services, eventually becoming the foundation’s president.

He was elected to the Tribal Council in 2017 and was reelected in 2020, becoming treasurer. Last September, he won a run-off election for chairman after a three-way race ended in a tie between Ray and another candidate in July.

“At the time, I felt like it should be somebody else, but then I thought maybe this is how the Creator wanted it,” Ray said of his election. “I had it placed in my lap rather than having sought it out. I hope it will bring us in the right direction.”

Ray said the tribe’s main goal continues to be gaining federal recognition, which it hopes to achieve through a creative new legal strategy he said he couldn’t disclose.

“The reversal was something that had never been seen before, so reversing the reversal requires something never seen before,” he said.

Federal recognition would enable the tribe to pursue funding for economic development, education services, health care and housing.

Ray said he’d like to build more homes for tribal members, including himself, on the reservation. He’d also like to improve the tribe’s relations with the state, which have been less than stellar since the state’s appeal of the tribe’s recognition approval.

“It was a slap in the face,” Ray said. “You’d think the state would want us to be federally recognized so they wouldn’t have to worry about us. ... But we need the state to support us — and not get in the way.”

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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