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    Saturday, April 20, 2024

    It’s been 20 years since the Eastern Pequots were recognized

    North Stonington ― Ron “Wolf” Jackson still shakes his head when he recalls the way the word came down.

    “It was when and how they did it ― on Columbus Day ― that made it worse,” he said. “And the press knew about it before we did.”

    On Oct. 12, 2005, the U.S. Department of the Interior’s deputy secretary, James Cason, announced the department “declined to acknowledge that the groups known as the Eastern Pequot Indians of Connecticut and the Paucatuck Eastern Pequot Indians of Connecticut are Indian tribes within the meaning of Federal law.”

    The stunning decision reversed the department’s June 24, 2002 “Final Determinations” that recognized the tribes as a single entity, “the Historical Eastern Pequot Tribe.” In proposed findings issued two years earlier, the department’s Bureau of Indian Affairs had recommended both tribes be recognized.

    For not quite 40 months, the Eastern Pequots enjoyed the same status as their southeastern Connecticut neighbors, the Mashantucket Pequots and the Mohegans, both of whom had parlayed federal recognition into casinos in the 1990s. The prospect that the Eastern Pequots would do the same had attracted the interest of investors with names like Trump and Koch.

    In an interview last week, Jackson, a former Eastern Pequot Tribal Council member now in his 60s, said Cason eventually apologized to him for leaking news of the “Reconsidered Final Determination” that pulled the rug out from under the tribe.

    “There had never been a positive (determination) reversed,” Jackson said. “We should have had no problem.”

    The Eastern Pequots have never abandoned hope that the federal recognition they briefly held might someday be restored. Last month they commemorated the 20th anniversary of the June 24, 2002 “Final Determinations.” Last week, the tribal council adopted a statement asking the Interior Department’s current assistant secretary for Indian Affairs, Bryan Newland, to reaffirm the tribe’s federal acknowledgment.

    Mitchel Ray, the tribe’s chairman and Jackson’s nephew, said the tribe has never gotten a response to a similar 2016 entreaty in which it asked the Bureau of Indian Affairs to “declare and reaffirm” its status as a “Previously Federally Acknowledged Tribe.”

    “We’re asking them to stand by their original decision,” Jackson said. “Other than that, there’s nothing left we can do short of a lawsuit.”

    The tribe already has pursued that route, in a 2012 suit filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. The suit was dismissed.


    Brenda Geer said “devastation” is the only word that comes to her mind when she’s asked about the impact of the Interior Department’s 2005 reversal of its decision granting the Eastern Pequots recognition.

    “It really was political whether people want to admit it or not,” she said. “Ultimately, they didn’t want a third casino (in Connecticut). I’ll go to my grave thinking that.”

    Geer, who has served on the Eastern Pequot Tribal Council for more than 30 years, was re-elected vice chairwoman Saturday in voting held during the tribe’s annual meeting. She recalled that the tribe’s federal recognition, fleeting though it was, raised the tribe’s profile in Indian Country, enabling it to begin applying for the federal assistance available to recognized tribes. At that point, she said, the tribe’s backers still were on board.

    In 2003, Donald Trump, who had bankrolled the Paucatuck Eastern Pequots’ recognition bid, sued rival investors who supported the larger Eastern Pequot tribal faction, including billionaire William Koch and businessman David Rosow, for more than $10 million.

    Opponents of the Eastern Pequots’ recognition promptly called for it to be reconsidered. A rival tribal faction, the Wiquapaug Eastern Pequot Tribe, filed a request with the Interior Board of Indian Appeals, and the state and the towns of Ledyard, North Stonington and Preston did the same.

    U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, then Connecticut’s attorney general, was at the forefront of the opposition, Geer said.

    On May 12, 2005, the Interior Board of Indian Appeals “vacated” the 2002 “Final Determinations,” ruling they had “incorrectly relied” on “the State’s continuous relationship and implicit recognition of the Eastern Pequot as a political entity” in finding that the tribes had existed since historical times until the present, a criterion for recognition.

    In its “Reconsidered Final Determination,” the BIA found the Eastern Pequots and the Paucatuck Eastern Pequots had become separate groups in the early 1980s.

    Can the united tribe, the “Historical Eastern Pequot Tribe,” ever regain what it had for nearly 40 months in the 2000s?

    “I’m very optimistic,” Geer said. “How is it they can say we’re not a tribe when we have 70,000 pages of documents that show we are? How can you have that much evidence and not be who you are? We’re one of the oldest reservations in the country, with people living here since 1683, and we’re not a tribe? I refuse to believe that.”

    Geer is one of about 20 tribal members who live on the 224-acre reservation off Wrights Road.

    “I respect the land,” she said. “My ancestors are in the wind. The tribe is more than the feathers, the regalia and the beads. It’s a spiritual thing. That’s what makes me say we will become recognized.

    “It’s time politicians made this wrong right.”


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