Schaghticoke Continues Fight For Federal Recognition -- And Its Benefits

Jul 13, 2016

Connecticut has announced its new Keno game, introduced in April, brought in $12 million in its first two months. That’s nearly twice what the state had projected.

Part of the proceeds are going to the state’s two federally recognized American Indian tribes, the Mashantucket and the Mohegan. But there are three other state-recognized Indian tribes in Connecticut. They are not getting any of the proceeds because only the two federally recognized tribes have a gaming compact with the state.

WSHU Senior Political Reporter Ebong Udoma and Reporter Davis Dunavin have been covering this development and spoke about it with Morning Edition Host Tom Kuser. Below is a transcript of their conversation.

TOM: Ebong, you’ve been following the state’s relationship with its Indian tribes for more than 20 years now. How did these compacts come about?

EBONG: In the early 90s, during the administration of Governor Lowell Weicker, the state was looking to diversify its revenue streams, so the income tax was introduced and they got into a compact with the two federally recognized tribes allowing them to have exclusive casino rights on their reservations. That was in exchange for settling all land claims in return for 25 percent of the slot machine revenue. And that guaranteed the state about $160 million a year.

TOM: But wasn’t Weicker an outspoken opponent of casino gambling?

EBONG: He was, but at the time the Mashantucket’s Foxwoods Casino, which was the first in Connecticut, was making a lot of money. He wanted the state to get some of that revenue.

TOM: But revenues have been dropping in recent years due to the downturn in the economy and competition from nearby states. And now New York and Massachusetts are allowing even more casinos.

EBONG: Yes, and that includes one on Long Island. But the most pressing concern is one being opened by MGM in Springfield, Massachusetts, right across the border from Connecticut. It’s scheduled to open in 2018. That’s prompted the Mashantucket Pequot and the Mohegans to seek to open casinos outside of their reservations on the Massachusetts border.

TOM: Davis, you’ve been following the latest developments. Hasn’t the state been sued by MGM?

DAVIS: Yes, and that case was thrown out of court. But there’s another case in court. It comes from the Schaghticoke tribe.

TOM: I believe the Schaghticokes are one of the three tribes that are recognized by the state but do not have federal recognition.

DAVIS: That’s right. They’re challenging the state’s decision to allow the federally recognized tribes to have casinos outside their reservation. They say it’s unfair to only let one group have a casino but no one else. This is Richard Velky, he’s the chief of the Schaghticokes.

VELKY: “If you’re going to allow the tribes to leave the reservation for gaming purpose, it should be considered a commercial enterprise and we should be able also to do the same and make a bid for it.”

TOM: So that means they’re concerned about gaming? Gaming is their issue?

DAVIS: Well, they say, no, it’s not about gaming. It’s about health care, welfare—all the good stuff that comes with federal recognition. Here’s Velky again.

VELKY: “We’re not doing it for a slot machine. We’re doing it for heritage. We’re not the ones that threw gaming in. Gaming came at us. We’re just defending our right to do what we could.”

TOM: Is that true?

DAVIS: Well, they have been seeking for federal recognition for a long time. And they actually had it for a brief moment in 2004.

TOM: Ebong, you covered that at the time.

EBONG: Yes, Tom, I did. They were recognized by the BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs], the state went to the Bush administration and got the secretary of the interior to reverse the BIA decision. And you know who was spearheading it for the state? Richard Blumenthal. He led the charge because recognition would open up land issues the state doesn’t want to deal with. As a matter of fact, the Schaghticoke actually lost their recognition on Columbus Day. Velky had this to say about the whole incident.

VELKY: “To have it on Columbus Day was a slap in our face to all our tribal members. Not just to us but to the Creator. He was so upset with it Himself, it had rained so hard that day the road was flooded out and you couldn’t get in or out of the reservation.”

DAVIS: That’s all true. But Tom, you know, all said and done, this court case against the state is not going to get them that federal recognition.

EBONG: And without federal recognition, there is no compact. There is no appetite in Connecticut right now to recognize any more tribes and have any more Indian casinos.

TOM: So, why are they getting backing from MGM?

DAVIS: Well, here’s what Velky said about MGM.

VELKY: “They are not a partner to the tribe. They’re only helping us fight because they’ve seen our fight, they were willing to come on board and help us.”

EBONG: Here’s what I think. MGM is in this to stop a rival casino on the Connecticut side of the border from their Massachusetts operation.

DAVIS: Even though Connecticut backed the casino last year, that legislation didn’t pass the General Assembly this year. So it’s still up in the air. There’s little likelihood they could get a casino up and running before MGM’s Springfield operation begins in 2018. Right now, Connecticut tribes can’t have casinos outside their reservation.

TOM: And I understand the Schaghticoke would have to have a casino outside their reservation?

EBONG: That’s right, Tom. That reservation is a rock outcrop in Kent. They can’t build much of anything there. Here’s how Velky describes it.

VELKY: “If you’re a deer or mountain goat it’s really nice for you…Very steep, rocky, rattlesnakes. It’s beautiful country. You make it up the top, the scenery is beautiful.”

TOM: So bottom line, despite the court case, the Schaghticokes are no nearer to getting federal recognition or building a casino.

EBONG: That’s the way it appears right now.

DAVIS: That’s right.

TOM: Thank you, Davis and Ebong.

DAVIS & EBONG: Thanks, Tom.

TOM: WSHU’s Senior Political Reporter Ebong Udoma and Reporter Davis Dunavin.