Give It Back to the Indians

by Michael Walsh

You had to know this was coming:

His tribe once controlled huge swaths of what is now New York and Connecticut, but the shrunken reservation presided over by Alan Russell today hosts little more than four mostly dilapidated homes and a pair of rattlesnake dens.

The Schaghticoke Indian Tribe leader believes its fortunes may soon be improving. As the U.S. Interior Department overhauls its rules for recognizing American Indian tribes, a nod from the federal government appears within reach, potentially bolstering its claims to surrounding land and opening the door to a tribal-owned casino.

“It’s the future generations we’re fighting for,” Russell said.

Right. In a development that’s been pitting lefty against lefty for decades now up in the hills of northwest Connecticut, all-but-vanished Indian tribes that consist of a handful of people — many with only the most tenuous Indian ancestry — have been laying claim to various lands currently occupied by some of the richest people in one of the richest states in the nation. Think of a family of Elizabeth Warrens with federal recognition, and you’ve not only got a Massachusetts senator and a tribe, you’ve got a casino and a resort! And that’s just the problem:

In Kent, a small Berkshires Mountains town with one of New England’s oldest covered bridges, residents have been calling the selectman’s office with their concerns. The tribe claims land including property held by the Kent School, a boarding school, and many residents put up their own money a decade ago to fight a recognition bid by another faction of the Schaghticokes.

Members of the state’s congressional delegation also have been in touch with the first selectman, Bruce Adams, who said he fears court battles over land claims and the possibility the tribe would open its own businesses as a sovereign nation within town boundaries.

“Everybody is on board that we have to do what we can to prevent this from happening,” he said.

You bet they are; in the battle between the tribe and my ultra-progressive Litchfield County friends and neighbors, my money’s on the latter. It’s all fine and dandy to have Indian reservations in places that no one’s ever been to, like the Dakotas, but what kind of a message does it send to the young men and women at the Kent School if they have to bunk up with slot machines and craps tables? Naturally, whenever the Great White Father gets involved, life turns into a zero-sum game for those on the receiving end:

The new rules will create tensions for host communities and some recognized tribes, according to Richard Monette, a law professor and expert on American Indian tribes at the University of Wisconsin. Tribes along the Columbia River in Washington state, for instance, will be wary of a new tribe at the river’s mouth gaining recognition and cutting into their take of salmon. Tribes elsewhere fear encroachment on casino gaming markets.

“This is a big issue throughout the whole country,” Monette said.

Luckily for the palefaces of Connecticut, they have Marine Corps war hero, Senator Dick Blumenthal, on their side:

In Connecticut, recognition has meant an entry into lucrative gaming markets. Russell, 67, said his 100-member tribe wants its own casino but not on its 400-acre reservation ringed by the Appalachian Trail. A business consultant for the tribe, Bill Buchanan, said it has spoken with potential investors and, assuming it wins recognition, would like to swap some land, team up with one of Connecticut’s bigger cities and perhaps build a casino along a highway.

A rival faction of the tribe, the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation, is hoping the new rules breathe life into its own parallel bid for recognition. The larger STN had the backing of Subway founder Fred DeLuca, who was interested in building a casino in Bridgeport, and it won recognition in 2004. But that decision was reversed after state officials argued the tribe had gaps in evidence related to its historical continuity.

U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal said Connecticut’s congressional delegation is united against changes that he said would have far-reaching ramifications for several towns and the entire state.

“Our hope is we can dissuade officials from proceeding with a regulatory step that would be very misguided because it would essentially eviscerate and eliminate key criteria,” Blumenthal said.

The “key criteria” in this case being whose ox is gored. Oh well, as Lorenz Hart famously wrote:

Take all the reds
On the boxes made for soap
Whites on Fifth Avenue
Blues down in Wall Street, losing hope
Big bargain today
Chief, take it away

Come, you busted city slickers
Better take it on the chin
Father Nick has lost his knickers
Give it back to the Indians



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