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Attorney urges town to be vigilant about Schaghticoke recognition

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KENT—Attorney Jeffrey Sienkiewicz, who represented Kent during its lengthy opposition to federal recognition for the Schaghticokes Indians as a tribe, warned the selectmen during a special meeting Feb. 28 that they should remain vigilant and continue to retain an attorney to protect the town.

Sienkiewicz, 76, said he has retired and encouraged the selectmen to find a younger attorney to keep an eye on developments in Washington, D.C., where the rules for tribal recognition remain in flux. “You don’t want someone who is 72,” he said. “You need someone local; you need a guy or woman who will poke around.”

Many of the attorneys who worked on the case in the early 2000s and later have now retired or died. “The last time the issue came up, I was the only one with historical knowledge,” he said. “Matters are complicated, and you really should have someone to react when the time comes. You don’t have to deal with it today, or this month, but you will have to deal with it eventually. The state will not protect you.”

He said the landscape has changed since the town, the state, Connecticut Light and Power, the Preston Mountain Club and Kent School mounted a vigorous campaign to thwart the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation’s tribal recognition by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Recognition would have allowed the tribe, which was backed by big gambling interests, to establish a second casino in Connecticut. 

The STN had a $6 million lawsuit against the town to recover some 2,000 acres of tribal land that had been sold in violation of the 1790 Nonintercourse Act, which prohibited purchases of Indian lands without the approval of the federal government. In 1802, the white overseers of the Kent reservation sold most the Indians’ lands, purportedly to raise money for housing and medical care for the remaining residents of the reservation.

That land suit could not be settled until the tribe achieved tribal recognition, but the STN promised to barter its ensured right to establish a casino on its reservation for the right to build a casino near a larger city if recognized.

“It was a huge case with the Schaghticoke Indian Nation that went on for 15 years,” Sienkiewicz said. “Even after they were denied recognition, they pursued their land claims.”

In 2015, the BIA amended its adoption regulations in a way that was “very, very lenient,” according to Sienkiewicz. It allowed previously denied petitioners to file again. This has since been overturned by the courts, but Sienkiewicz said the issue is not firmly settled. “Someone should be keeping an eye on it,” he said.

He noted that there is more than one Schaghticoke group claiming to be the official tribe. The Schaghticoke Indian Nation (STN) is a bitter rival of the Schaghticoke Indian Tribe (SIT). “We had a better chance with the STN,” Sienkiewicz said. “We don’t even know who the members of the SIT are. We can’t look at the genealogy. Generally speaking, the descent is important to the feds but not so much for us. A lot of people are descended from the Schaghticokes.”

One requirement for federal recognition is continuing political authority. Because of an active program of assimilation promoted by the white population in the first half of the 20th century, the remaining population of the Kent reservation was dispersed. “The problem was there was a reservation but really there was no political leadership until the1960s,” Sienkiewicz said. “They haven’t had continuity throughout history under a single leadership.”

The Schaghticoke Indian Tribe still has a pending petition for recognition.

“It’s a mess,” Sienkiewicz said. “It’s sort of a chess game. The reservation is going to be there inevitably. You need someone who can advocate for you.”

He cautioned the selectmen against accepting meetings with lobbyists until the leadership of the tribe is established. “If a letter goes to you and you respond, the next thing you know it’s in the record that you recognized the tribe because you accepted a meeting.”

At an ensuing meeting of the Board of Selectmen, First Selectman Marty Lindenmayer reported that he had conferred with Jena MacLean of Perkins Coie in Washington, D.C., who represents Kent School and has partnered with the town since the beginning of the Schaghticoke issues, as well as town counsel D. Randall DiBella, and had been assured that the town would be represented. “We’re pretty well set,” he reported. “I don’t think we need an independent attorney to represent the town.”

The town’s proposed budget for 2024-25 includes $25,000 for litigation and $20,000 for matters concerning the Schaghticokes.

Kathryn Boughton
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