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Education, land sovereignty are key issues for Indigenous nations in Connecticut on Election Day

Eastern Pequot Tribal Nation

With Election Day coming up next week, education and land sovereignty are among the most important issues for Indigenous nations in Connecticut.

Mitchel Ray, chairman of the Easter Pequot Tribal Nation, said the tribe has been fighting for survival for centuries. The state-recognized tribe is currently seeking federal recognition.

“So what's important for us now is to keep that relationship going with the state and federal government to ensure that future generations will be here," Ray said.

Ray added his top priority is the well-being of the tribal community.

Roughly 3.7 million people living in the United States identify as Indigenous. That’s according to data from the 2020 U.S. Census. In Connecticut, there are five state-recognized tribes that vary in size, history, and recognition status.

“Our populations’ very small. I believe we’re less than one percent nationally. We’re working with a very tedious number right now. If we don’t take care of this group, it's going to be gone," Ray said.

Ray said land sovereignty, tribal membership and recognition are the most important issues. He also wants to continue the relationship with the state and establish a connection with the federal government.

Ray said the appointments of Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and U.S. Treasurer Lynn Malerba, of the Mohegan Tribe, are steps in the right direction. He said seeing Indigenous people in positions of leadership has a profound effect.

“When we see that, it inspires hope. Same thing when Barack Obama came into office as the first Black president. It inspired hope that you could do that too. Not saying that every Native American would like to go into that political arena, but it just means there's hope for us," Ray said.

Ray hopes the changes at the national level will trickle down to state and local positions. He said these small changes will be catalysts for bigger movements. With more Indigenous leaders, Ray believes people in Connecticut would be open to learning more about the Indigenous community.

“When I talk to people about tribal affairs down here they just don't have a clue. What they associate Indian affairs with is casinos. So it’s like that's a point of education to really let them know what the problems are," Ray said.

Ray believes education is the key to connection.

“We like to engage with the community. That would be a great thing for leaders to do is to reach out to us. See how they can engage with us, even just meeting them asking us questions. How they can help and maybe it could be us giving a talk of history at a school or even at a town hall. It’s those types of things that get dialog going," Ray said.

Next year, public schools across the state will be required to teach Native American studies. Ray hopes residents will seek to engage with Indigenous communities in their area. He said tribes need support from their local communities, not just the state.

“I think that’ll have a profound impact on the community and it’ll help nurture Connecticut's tribes. We want our Connecticut citizens to embrace us. Because if they don't, like I said, we’ll be gone. We need that protection," Ray said.

Jeniece Roman is WSHU's Report for America corps member who writes about Indigenous communities in Southern New England and Long Island, New York.