from www.TheDay.com: Eastern Connecticut's News Source
Racism and racial bigotry in Indian Country
- Rev. Sequoyah Rodriguez
Publicly, members of two rival North Stonington tribes have downplayed the role of race in the feud between them. Privately, members of the Eastern Pequots and Paucatuck Eastern Pequots have revealed that race plays a significant part in the long-running battle, interview transcripts from both groups show.
In the eyes of the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, the two groups appear to be factions of the same tribe. The bureau has chastised the Paucatucks for the racist overtones of criticisms against the Easterns and have said both groups would have a better chance of winning federal recognition if they join forces.
But the Paucatucks, who are predominantly white, have said the Easterns, who are predominantly black, are not Pequots and may not even be Indians.
And while the Paucatucks often characterize as racists those who oppose them, their disdain for the Easterns runs so deep that some Paucatucks say they would sooner risk losing their bid for federal recognition, and the wealth a casino might bring them, than unite with the Easterns.
The BIA conducted the interviews in 1995 and 1999 as part of both tribes' recognition process. Transcripts of the taped sessions were recently released by the bureau at the request of state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal and lawyers for Preston, Ledyard and North Stonington. The towns and Blumenthal are challenging both tribes' preliminary recognitions.
The transcripts offer a rare and revealing glimpse into the tribes, how their leaders and members feel about one another and how both regard their quest for federal acknowledgment.
The long-running feud between the two factions comes up frequently in the interviews. Race and its role in the dispute is a recurring theme.
“They don't want anything to do with us, you see, and it's been so for years,” one Eastern member unidentified in the transcripts said of the Paucatucks. “They're prejudiced because we're dark. We're dark, but we're still the same. We're Indians. And they married white, we married dark, darker people.”
Some Paucatuck members said in their interviews that they are fed up with being portrayed as racists in the media and by the Eastern Pequots.
The Easterns “said it was a race issue, said it was because they were black, we wouldn't take them, which still bothers me to this day,” said Paucatuck Chief James A. Cunha Jr.
“There's no truth that we're racist or that, you know, we're saying that they're not part of our group or whatever because they're black,” Jeff Tingley, a prominent Paucatuck member, told the interviewer.
“We have some black members, we have some, you know? Yet you have to sit there and you have to take all this,” he said. “If we were to say anything in response it would look bad ... so we have to shut our mouths and just take it.”
Both tribes have refused to comment on the interview transcripts.
“The interviews speak for themselves,” said Nancy Tyler, a spokeswoman for the Easterns.
Black and white
The Paucatucks and Easterns were each granted preliminary recognition last year and could receive a final decision from the BIA by year's end. The bureau has reserved for its final determination the decision of whether there are two tribes or one.
Both groups want to develop casinos and each claims it descends from the historic Eastern Pequot tribe that was forced onto the Lantern Hill reservation in the late 1600s by Connecticut's colonial government.
The Easterns say the Paucatucks, motivated in part by racism, emerged as a political faction in 1973. For decades, the Easterns have urged a reconcilation and merger, but the Paucatucks have steadfastly refused.
Cunha, who has labeled as racists opponents of his tribe's recognition attempts, told the interviewer the Paucatucks remain opposed to merging with the Easterns.
In fact, he said, the tribe would not reconcile even if the BIA required it.
“We've asked (tribal members) hypothetical questions of what if the BIA says we've given you 30 days to form one government...what are (we) going to do? They said, 'Fight it. We determine our membership. They don't belong,'” said Cunha. “There's a whole slew of people who come and say keep fighting, keep doing what we're doing.”
Such animosity between so-called black Indians and white Indians is not uncommon, said William Loren Katz, a former history professor who wrote about intermarriages and alliances between blacks and Native Americans in his book “Black Indians.”
American Indians, he said, often took blacks into their tribes and learned racism from European colonists who, fearing a powerful alliance between tribes and blacks, encouraged Indians to reject tribal members of mixed racial heritage.
As with racism in the general American population, Katz said, unlearning such behavior has been difficult for tribes. Native Americans who appear more white, he said, consider themselves to be of more pure blood than those who are more obviously of mixed racial heritage, he said.
“The more white blood you have the better it is,” said Katz. “They are not even aware at this point that this is an idea they picked up from European colonists. But these black members are saying we feel we are Indians, too. We are entitled to feel about ourselves just the same way you feel about yourselves. We identify with Native Americans.”
In their sessions with the interviewer, Eastern members express hurt, anger and confusion over the Paucatucks' continued rejection, despite their offers to the Paucatucks, who have about 140 members to the Easterns' 600, to occupy nearly half of the Tribal Council seats if the two groups merge.
“We always held out the olive branch to them. We're always the ones making the overtures ... 'Come be on our council, we'll split up the seats and this and that,'” said Ed Powers, a member of the Eastern Pequots.
Agnes Cunha, a Paucatuck leader, has led the tribe's opposition to joining the Easterns, Powers said.
“She puts this whole thing on a racial thing. They're white Indians and we're black Indians,” Powers said. “I mean, we don't understand how people think. Whether you like somebody because of the color of their skin or whatever ... that's immaterial.”
“I'd really like to know what the root of it is, because it's something,” said Geneva Sebastian, an Eastern. Agnes Cunha, she said, has repeatedly rebuffed her overtures to meet and talk.
“(I) told Agnes that I would meet with her myself, you know, just to find out what's wrong ... but she wouldn't answer my phone calls. I'd be willing to sit down tomorrow and talk to her, you know, but she won't. So there's something amiss there and I don't know what it is. It's too bad that we can't get it ironed out.”
Like others in her tribe, Sebastian described the dichotomy of being black and an Indian.
“My dad told me when I was this high, when I was like four, he says, 'Don't let people go around calling you black ... because you aren't. You are an Eastern Pequot.' So I kept that in my heart, that I am an Eastern Pequot,” Sebastian said.
“We have to try very hard not to, not to badmouth them because we're not here to say they're not” Pequots, said Paucatuck member Jean Williams of the Easterns. “We're here to say we are. We don't care what you are. You don't belong to us, we don't care about you. We are what we are and we know we are.”
The color line that divides the two Pequot factions seems to divide all of the state's tribes, the interviews indicate.
The state's perceived white tribes, the Paucatucks, Schaghticokes and Mohegans, have political and social ties that stretch back decades.
They have little dealings with the three so-called black tribes, the Mashantuckets, Easterns and Golden Hill Paugussetts, who have been affiliated for decades as well.
Other tribes' views
In the interviews, Melissa Jane Fawcett, the Mohegans' historian, and Richard Velky, chief of the Schaghticoke Tribe of Kent, mention their tribes' long-standing affiliations with the Paucatucks, while the Easterns talk of their social and cultural ties with the Golden Hills and Mashantuckets.
Leaders of the Paucatucks and Schaghticokes, Fawcett said, attended Mohegan social functions as far back as 70 years ago.
Leaders of the Schaghticokes and Mohegans tried to cast doubt on the Easterns' claims of Indian ancestry and said the Paucatucks have always been regarded as the legitimate tribe.
Fawcett described the Paucatucks as Indian royalty and said she was told by a Mohegan elder that the Easterns were not Indians.
“Royal not necessarily in the European sense of the word, but in the best sense of the word that we can define it,” Fawcett said of the Paucatucks. “These are the chiefs class people, these are the people who have been leadership, are leadership, and are accepted, at least by our tribe, as the only leadership.”
She said her tribe's association with the Paucatucks and Schaghticokes stretches back decades, but that the Mohegans have never mingled socially or politically with the Sebastians, the core family that makes up the Eastern Pequot and Mashantucket tribes.
“I don't think I met a Sebastian or even heard of a Sebastian” growing up, she said. Her first recollection of their existence, she said, was during the 1970s when the Easterns and Paucatucks battled to be recognized by the state's Indian Affairs Council.
“We really didn't get that involved in it,” Fawcett said. “We had our own what we would call wannabe problems and still do.”
In an interview with The Day, Fawcett said she does not believe the feud between the Paucatucks and Easterns is racially motivated. Such tribal divisions, she said, generally tend to occur between family groups, and that is likely the case for the two North Stonington tribes.
Although the Paucatucks and Mohegans once shared social ties with the Mashantuckets, those ties were apparently severed when Hayward and his family lost control of the tribe to new members, many of them black and related to members of the Eastern Pequots, several years ago.
Velky said the Schaghticokes, who are also seeking federal recognition, have long-standing political ties with the Paucatucks and said it is unclear whether the Easterns are Native Americans.
He also said the federal recognition process and the benefits it brings has pitted Indian groups in Connecticut against one another.
“Just like any other process, when it looks like there might be a rainbow sprouting up for you, everybody seems to get in and muck it up one way or the other, either by groups sprouting up trying to identify themselves as Indian organizations or some of the tribes within themselves creating a disturbance because they're fighting for leadership.
“It's been said that an Indian's greatest enemy is another Indian,” he added. “I laughed when I first heard that (but) it seems it is true at different times.”