For tribes, federal recognition opens doors, confers respect
In the context of Indian tribes, the term connotes acknowledgment, acceptance and, above all else, leaders of southeastern Connecticut’s tribes say, respect.
It’s of no small consequence, of course, that federal recognition also is essential to a tribe’s pursuit of casino development, which can reshape a tribe’s destiny. That’s been the experience of the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes, respective owners of Foxwoods Resort Casino and Mohegan Sun, two of North America’s largest resort casinos.
But the prospect of gaming riches wasn’t even in the picture when the Mashantuckets, the Mohegans and the Eastern Pequots ― who were recognized for a time in the early 2000s before a decision acknowledging them was rescinded ― began eyeing federal recognition in the 1970s.
The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, which authorized tribes to operate casinos on their reservations, wouldn’t be enacted until 1988.
“We were at risk of losing our land forever,” Rodney Butler, the Mashantucket Pequot chairman, said of his tribe’s motivation for seeking federal recognition. “Only a handful of Pequots were left living on our reservation and when they passed, the state was ready to take the land. Back then, fighting for the land and having a residential base was most important.”
“Without federal recognition, our very existence was in jeopardy,” Butler said.
The Mashantuckets took to the courts to recover land the state had taken from them in the 19th century, eventually securing federal recognition as part of the Mashantucket Pequot Indian Land Claims Settlement Act that Congress passed and that President Ronald Reagan signed into law on Oct. 18, 1983.
With federal recognition, comes sovereignty ― a tribe’s right to govern itself ― as well as the establishment of a government-to-government relationship with the United States. Many tribes that lack federal recognition, including Connecticut’s state-recognized tribes other than the Mashantuckets and the Mohegans ― the Easterns, the Schaghticokes of Kent and the Golden Hill Paugussetts of Colchester and Trumbull ― continue to struggle.
Some people still cling to “an insane theory,” Butler said, that a casino was part of the Mashantuckets’ plan all along, that the tribe’s interest in federal recognition had solely to do with pursuing gaming.
“Even in 1988-89, we weren’t thinking about a casino,” he said. “Our goal was self-governance.”
Reversals of fortune
Both the Mohegans and the Eastern Pequots, who splintered from the Mashantucket Pequots in the wake of the Pequot War in the 17th century, first petitioned the Department of the Interior in 1978, the same year the department adopted regulations governing the recognition process. In 1989, the Paucatuck Eastern Pequots, who occupied the same reservation as the Eastern Pequots, filed their own petition.
Interior recognized the Eastern Pequots and the Paucatuck Eastern Pequots as a single entity, “the Historical Eastern Pequot Tribe,” in 2002. Forty months later, on Oct. 12, 2005, the department rescinded the recognition following appeals by the state and the towns of Ledyard, North Stonington and Preston.
“First and foremost, the foundation of federal recognition is the government services provided to recognized tribes,” said Mitchel Ray, the Easterns’ chairman. “It means health care, economic development, a whole series of different services that pertain to Native Americans.”
Deeded 280 acres in the 17th century, the tribe currently maintains a 224-acre reservation. If it were federally recognized, Ray said, the tribe would seek to reclaim the 56 acres it has lost.
“But we can’t do that until we’re recognized,” he said.
Some local resistance to the Easterns’ bid for federal recognition was linked to the assumption that it would have led to a third tribal casino in southeastern Connecticut. The fear was not unfounded given big-name investors’ willingness at the time to back the petitioning efforts of both the Eastern Pequots and the Paucatuck Eastern Pequots.
A casino, however, was never the Eastern Pequots’ main focus, according to Ray, who said building housing for tribal members was the major goal, albeit one that would have required the tribe to acquire more land since so much of its reservation is unsuitable for development. In its never-say-die efforts to keep its hopes of gaining federal recognition alive, the tribe avoids mentioning gaming.
“It’s not about a casino; it’s about tribal legitimacy,” said Larry Wilson, an Eastern tribal councilor who was involved in putting together an original petition.
Without federal recognition, the tribe has only recently made some progress, securing state funding in 2021 for infrastructure improvements on its reservation.
“We just now are starting to stand on our own two feet,” Ray said. “We’re trying to get to where we can take care of ourselves.”
The Mohegans were denied recognition in a 1989 “proposed finding” due to insufficient evidence of tribal social and political activities during the 1940s and 1950s, as Melissa Tantaquidgeon Zobel, the tribe’s medicine woman and tribal historian, recounted in her 1995 book, “The Lasting of the Mohegans: Part I, The Story of the Wolf People.”
According to Zobel, the tribe at that point submitted more evidence of its continuous existence since “historical times” and the federal government conducted a field review of the tribe in November 1993. In a final determination issued on March 7, 1994, the tribe’s federal recognition was approved.
Two months later, once the recognition had taken effect, tribal members and the public celebrated with a picnic at Fort Shantok, a site the Mohegans were able to reclaim from the state. Along with recognition came the settlement later that year of the Mohegans’ land claims suit against the federal government, which authorized the clean-up of the former United Nuclear Corp. property in Montville as a site for Mohegan Sun.
By then, Foxwoods had been operating for two years. The Mashantuckets, Zobel said, were supportive of the Mohegans’ federal-recognition bid.
Zobel recalled that failure to gain federal recognition, which she said would have been tantamount to a form of “erasure,” loomed large at the time.
“It would have been terrible for the old, especially,” she said. “What if we had to tell them they weren’t what they always thought they were?”
Seeing the expressions on elders’ faces at being officially recognized as Indians “made it all worthwhile,” Zobel said.
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