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Federal rule change raises questions about tribal recognition in Conn.

Davis Dunavin

Native American tribes who have been denied federal recognition might have another chance under proposed new rules from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. But those new rules come with a clause that leaves tribes in Connecticut unsure if they’ll ever be recognized.  It has reopened an old debate between the state of Connecticut, homeowners and tribes.

Down a tree-lined road in Trumbull, Connecticut, between all the houses and churches, there’s a little log cabin. It's the smallest Native American reservation in the United States. This is the home of the Golden Hill Paugussetts. Well, it’s one of their homes. Most live on a reservation in Colchester. Their land once ranged from Norwalk to New Haven. Here, at the Trumbull reservation, it's just Clan Mother Shoran  Piper and her three young children.

"My father fought for this place with blood, sweat and tears," said Piper.

Her father was Aurelius Piper, known as Chief Big Eagle. He died in 2008, after an unsuccessful court battle for federal recognition. Now he's buried right here in the yard, on the little patch of land he loved.

"Never, never gave up," she said. "Always fought, and continued to fight for his people, all the way up until the day he took his passing over to the creator."

The Bureau of Indian Affairs is a considering a rule that would give tribes who have been denied federal recognition a chance to re-apply. The Golden Hill Paugussett is one of three Connecticut tribes who have been denied in the past. They're recognized as a tribe by the state, but Piper says federal recognition would come with a lot of benefits, like housing, health care, education, job training, counseling and other social services.

In May, a change was added to the proposed rule that threw an obstacle in their way. They would need approval from any party who previously contested their recognition. In this case, that's the state of Connecticut. For years, state officials have opposed opening the door for more tribes. It could mean more casinos in addition to the state’s two tribal casinos. Also, in the past, the Paugusetts have claimed ownership of developed land in Fairfield County. Here's Representative Rosa DeLauro, speaking at a town hall meeting in Woodbridge back in April.

“We should not have to be re-litigating this issue," DeLauro said. "We did that to a fare-thee-well.”

Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen said the rule would still have serious consequences for Connecticut, even with the change. But BIA assistant director Kevin Washburn says in the current version, groups like the Golden Hill Paugussett wouldn't get federal recognition without the state's approval.

"The people who have opposed them, who have spent all that time and money and effort opposing the petitioner, and were successful, they don't like us saying, 'look, we're wiping the slate clean and starting over,'” said Washburn.

For some homeowners, the Golden Hill Paugusett bring up bad memories of an era of land claims. Ken Lenz is an attorney in Orange and the founder of a group called Homeowners Held Hostage. They formed in the ‘90s, when they learned the Golden Hill Paugussett were claiming ownership of land belonging to about 1,000 other homeowners in Orange, Derby and several other towns.

"And that instantaneously made it impossible for the homeowners to sell their property, refinance their property and caused a lot of alarm," said Lenz.

They say the Golden Hill Paugussett was trying to leverage the land claims to get land for a casino in Bridgeport.

"And that really outraged a lot of people, because why should we be pawns to this game?" asks Lenz.

Lenz and other homeowners thought the matter was settled when the Golden Hill Paugussett lost its bid for recognition in 2004. He says when they saw a 2013 discussion draft of the rules, they suspected the BIA was trying to re-stoke an old fire.

"One of the things they added, it says, 'You don't have to prove that you had continuous tribal recognition if you can show that you had a state-recognized reservation since 1933.'" said Lenz. "That happened to be the same year the state of Connecticut set up the Trumbull reservation. And we just thought that was not a coincidence."

Back at the reservation, Piper says tribal recognition is about more than casinos.

"We've been seeking federal recognition way before there was even talk of casinos, before casinos were even being built."

She said when she knows their options, she’ll talk it over with the tribal council.

"All Native American Indians and tribes, we just keep getting pushed on the back burner. Things just keep getting taken away from us. Nothing really changes, it just gets worse and worse for our people.”

In the meantime, homeowners and state officials are waiting, too. The comment period was supposed to end this week, but the BIA decided to extend it another 60 days to gather more opinions. After that, the agency says it'll be a matter of months before the public knows what's in the final rule. It could change again, or the agency could throw it out entirely and start over.

Davis Dunavin loves telling stories, whether on the radio or around the campfire. He started in Missouri and ended up in Connecticut, which, he'd like to point out, is the same geographic trajectory taken by Mark Twain.
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