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Some Indian tribes have all the luck

After a years-long battle over Indian identity that has included disputed 19th-century signatures and a lawsuit from Donald Trump, it looks like the Eastern Pequots and three other would-be casino tribes have seen their bids for federal recognition rejected.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Everything that anybody needs to know about the billion-dollar divide between Connecticut's Indians is visible after dark here, where the residents of the rundown Eastern Pequot reservation can look up and see a glow in the sky.

"It's just something that's always been there," said Agnes E. Cunha, a tribal councilor.

It is the massive Foxwoods Resort Casino, where the neighboring Mashantucket Pequot Indians -- separated from the Easterns by a 1638 treaty, a short stretch of road and an enormous difference in good fortune -- pull in more than $800 million a year on slots alone.

Now, after a years-long battle over Indian identity that has included disputed 19th-century signatures and a lawsuit from Donald Trump, this looks like the way things will stay here.

Within the last 18 months, the Eastern Pequots (pronounced PEE-kwots) and three other would-be casino tribes have seen their bids for federal recognition rejected. Now, in the state where big-time reservation gaming was pioneered, the only thing left is a bitter view of the neighbors' glow.

"The sad part is," tribal chairman Marcia Jones Flowers said of the casino-rich Mashantuckets, "they were us."

Across the country, there are more than 400 tribal gaming facilities, bringing in revenue in excess of $18 billion last year. But Indian gaming has, of course, also generated problems to match these profits, such as the controversy over lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who is being investigated for improperly taking $82 million from tribal clients.

Connecticut has become an epicenter for Indian controversy, and not because it has a large number of Indians -- along with Native Alaskans, they make up about 0.34 percent of the state's population.

Instead, it's because the remnants of Colonial-era tribes here used their federal recognition to open two of the country's biggest casinos.

Love-hate relationship
First, the Mashantucket tribe built Foxwoods, which now attracts 40,000 people a day with restaurants, table games and Wampum Rewards Cards for frequent gamblers. Then, in 1996, the Mohegan tribe opened the almost-as-enormous Mohegan Sun casino, where the Casino of the Earth alone -- there is also a Casino of the Sky -- has 3,600 slot machines.

These facilities, within easy day-tripping distance of Boston and New York, have brought enormous windfalls to the tribes and to Connecticut. The tribes send the state 25 percent of their net slot machine revenue, which this year is expected to hit $430 million.

But state and local officials say they're fed up with the traffic, crime and gambling addictions that come with casinos. So they've tried to close the legal loophole that the first two tribes exploited to host gambling, and spent the last few years doggedly opposing attempts by other groups to gain federal recognition.

"We love the two casinos that are there," said Ken Dautrich, a public policy professor at the University of Connecticut. "But we would hate to have more."

The fight between state and tribes took place within the Interior Department's creaky tribal recognition bureaucracy. Those who participated say it had everything and nothing to do with gaming.

Nothing, because the system -- set up before the advent of Indian casinos -- is supposed to be concerned only with genealogical and historical questions: Do the current tribal members actually descend from Colonial-era Indians? Has the tribe always had a functioning central authority?

"It's a really straightforward process," said James E. Cason, an associate deputy secretary at Interior who oversees the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

But not many people agree with that here in Connecticut, where gambling seems to always have been just under the surface.

Investors hoping for a Foxwoods-style payoff gave the tribes millions to dig up reams of documents, such as an 1873 petition signed by Eastern Pequot members, which might flesh out current members' family trees.

"You need to hire professors, anthropologists, historians," said Flowers, whose tribe's history since the 1636-38 Pequot War has been tangled by intermarriage with other tribes and non-Indians. "You need a lot of money."

State and town officials were, however, equally thorough in their rebuttals. In the case of the 1873 petition, they cried foul because some of the signatures seemed to be in the same handwriting.

Along the way, the process occasionally detoured into the surreal: For a while, one group of Eastern Pequots told the press that the others were non-Indian impostors, though later the two groups united. Then there was a cameo by Trump, whose casino company sued for breach of an investment agreement with the Pequots.

Governments decision to deny
In 2002, things seemed to have gone in favor of the Eastern Pequots. The federal government issued a "final determination" that they should be recognized.

But final, in this case, did not actually mean final. After an appeal from the state and towns, Washington agreed to rethink the decision.

That process took more than three years.

On Oct. 12, the day they finally were to hear from the government, the Eastern Pequots built a fire and prepared for a celebratory powwow, Flowers said.

At the tribe's office, leaders were gathered around the fax machine when, at 2 p.m., it started to spit out the government's decision.

"First page said it all," Flowers said.

There had been a "Reconsidered Final Determination," denying them federal recognition. Across the state, the Schaghticoke (pronounced SCAT-a-cook) Tribe was getting the same news.

These two decisions -- taken together with the 2004 rejections of two other tribes with casino ambitions, the Golden Hill Paugussetts and the Nipmucs -- have been seen to end an era here.

Preparing for a long fight
Though several other would-be Connecticut tribes -- including the Southern Pequots, the Western Pequot Tribal Nation of New Haven and the Native American Mohegans -- are in the Interior Department pipeline, their cases might not be decided for years.

"It's safe to say, at this point, that if there's ever going to be more casinos in this state, it's going to be a long, long time from now," said Jeff Benedict, a longtime activist who recently resigned as president of the Connecticut Alliance Against Casino Expansion.

For the rejected tribes, experts say, the best remaining option may be a long and possibly hopeless challenge in federal court. They may have to do it without their investors; a primary backer of the Nipmucs has already pulled out.

In interviews, leaders of three tribes -- the head of the Paugussetts did not return calls for comment -- said they were prepared to fight on.

But Richard Velky, chief of the Schaghticokes, admitted that it was a scary thought that they might, in one stroke, have lost their dreams of a casino and something more basic: acknowledgment as a legitimate Indian tribe.

"Oh, boy, I wouldn't even want to think about it," he said, asked about the possibility that the tribe's appeals would fail. "I don't know where we go."