Federal Proposal Could Affect Conn. Tribes, Lawyers
Attorney Jeffrey B. Sienkiewicz has been fending off land claims by the Schaghticoke Indian Tribe since the early 1980s.
A little over a year ago, the former Kent town attorney who now has a private practice in New Milford thought he was finally done facing off against the tribe that has occupied a 400-acre reservation overlooking the Housatonic River since the 1700s. "But now, it looks like they're going to get another bite at the apple," he said.
Connecticut currently has two federally recognized tribes, the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation and the Mohegan Tribe, which currently run the nation's two largest Indian-owned casinos — Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun.
A new proposal that would make it easier for tribes to gain federal recognition could add three other Connecticut tribes to the list: the Schaghticokes of Kent; the Golden Hill Paugussetts of Trumbull and Colchester; and the Eastern Pequots of North Stonington. That has some lawyers who protect the intersts of towns, including Sienkiewicz, concerned about renewed land use claims. And possibly, plans for new casinos.
"The change to the federal recognition system for tribes they are talking about making would really gut the system," Sienkiewicz said. If that recognition were granted, "litigation that has been going on for years would be reopened;" he said, rendering some of the legal work that has been done meaningless.
The Schaghticoke Tribe was granted its reservation by the General Assembly of the Colony of Connecticut in 1736, and the land it occupies was laid out by a group including a signor of the Declaration of Independence, Roger Sherman. Starting in 1975, using a revolving door of lawyers and firms, the tribe has made several legal efforts to expand its reservation.
Various aspects of the case have gone before state and federal courts, and before the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs. The bottom line is that the tribe, for the most part, has been told it does not meet the criteria to be federally recognized and that its land claims are invalid. (Federal recognition was briefly granted in 2004, but rescinded by the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 2005).
Last year, the tribe lost what looked likes its final bid for federal recognition, which carries with it some housing, medical and education benefits for tribal members. As a result, a bitter fight over land claims the tribe had brought against Kent, the Connecticut Light & Power company, and Kent School looked to be finished.
"I have piles of paper related to this case in my office," said Sienkiewicz, who started representing Kent in the land claim case as its attorney in 1982, and continued after he entered private practice several years ago. "It's an interesting case, but it's been going on for a very long time."
He continued: "I'm watching this closely, and I expect to file some comments on behalf of the Town of Kent in opposition of the proposed regulations. Just imagine the amount of money and effort the land owners and state have spent fighting these land claims."