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The Eastern Pequots struggle to reclaim tribal territory.
By Amy Martin
he fourth-largest casino in the world rises out of the eastern Connecticut woods like something from The Wizard of Oz. The two-lane road that winds through rural Ledyard and North Stonington morphs into a highway directing traffic to Foxwoods Resort Casino’s various towers, hotels, restaurants and shops. Elaborate signs welcome guests to the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation.
I drive past the familiar teal-and-white buildings where I’ve seen John Oliver perform standup, sampled Guy Fieri’s trash can nachos and once won $60 on a slot machine. Four miles down the road, I’m searching for the Eastern Pequot Tribal Nation. And I’m lost.
I’m meeting Mitchel Ray, a member of the Eastern PequotTribal Council, at one of the oldest—if not the oldest—continuously inhabited native reservations in the country. But there is no highway out here, no road signs, nothing to tell me whether I’m in the right place. My GPS takes me to a Chelsea Groton Bank. Down the street, I stop at a farm stand to ask directions. The woman working the cash register has never heard of the Eastern Pequots. She assumes I’m looking for the Mashantucket Pequot Reservation.
I call Ray, who directs me through a residential neighborhood, past a Texas-style steer farm, and onto a long gravel road that eventually opens into a clearing with a sandwich-board-sized sign: Eastern Pequot Indian Reservation Since 1683.
Four hundred years ago, as many as 8,000 Pequots occupied the coastal area of Long Island Sound from the Niantic River to western Rhode Island—including the 750 acres that make up the Connecticut College campus. But in the mid-1630s, the newly arrived European colonists declared war on the Pequots. Thousands were killed or enslaved; in one attack on a Pequot village in Mystic, hundreds of Pequot men, women, children and elders are believed to have been killed in a single day. Two small bands of Pequots survived the genocide—one group was placed under the rule of the neighboring Mohegan tribe to the west, while the other retreated to the east.
The western group eventually became known as the Mashantucket Pequots, who received federal recognition through a Connecticut delegation-backed U.S. congressional act signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1983. A neighboring tribe, the Mohegans, were recognized in 1994.
The eastern group became known as the Eastern Pequots; they began working toward federal recognition in 1978. More than 40 years into the highly politicized battle, they are still fighting.
I PARK MY SUBARU next to Ray’s. He’s driven up—as he does at least twice a week for tribal meetings—from his home in Fairfield County. Like all the Eastern Pequot tribal leaders, Ray is a volunteer.
The reservation is quiet on this unseasonably warm fall Saturday. There are a few modest homes in view, along with several campsites along the edge of the clearing. Ray tells me there are approximately 1,200 members of the Eastern Pequot Tribal Nation, but only about 16 families living on the mostly wooded 225-acre reservation.
“Reservations out West are huge,” he says as we begin to walk down an unpaved road to the right of the clearing.
“This would be like a parking lot for somebody.”
The cleared, grassy area is where the tribe holds its annual ceremonial powwow, a daylong celebration attended by hundreds of tribal members and friends. Ray shows me the community gardens, which the tribe is hoping to expand, and he points out a sacred burial ground before we see a newly constructed pavilion, built over the summer with a $10,000 Davis Projects for Peace grant secured by Lan-Huong “Pansy” Nguyen ’19.
Across from the pavilion, tribal member Leon C. Boykin is working on his truck in his front yard. Fifty feet away, Ray shows me the wooded dig site archaeologists and students from the University of Massachusetts Boston have been excavating.
“It’s believed to be an old one-room schoolhouse,” Ray says. “There’s always something to find because a lot of the land is untouched. And while it’s forest now, it’s all new forest.”
Just beyond the dig is the start of a new nature trail that winds through the Eastern Pequots’ woods, also funded through the Davis grant. Associate professor of botany and environmental studies Chad Jones and his systematic botany students worked with tribal members to map the trail and identify plants that have traditionally been used by Native Americans. Last summer, students researched indigenous plant names, and now the plan is to install signs along the trail, create a map and brochure, and launch a website that corresponds to QR codes with additional information on what’s growing along this trail.
Ray hopes the pavilion will serve as a launching point for the nature walk—a type of outdoor museum drawing anyone interested in learning about the Eastern Pequots and indigenous cultures, but also drawing members of the tribe. Over the summer, the tribe hosted a race through the reservation. This fall, visiting professor of botany Eric Vukicevich led a mushroom foray for tribal members and Conn students.
“Even for recognized tribes, participation is an issue. We are hoping through things such as the archaeological digs, the botany walk and the race effort that we can get everyone together, get everyone involved,” Ray says.
Deeper into the woods, Ray envisions a loop road with new houses—a neighborhood that could draw more members back to their historic lands. He knows it’s a lofty aspiration.
“It’s hard getting people back here when there’s no place to work,” he says. “We are living life like anybody, just trying to make ends meet.”
ON THE EASTERN PEQUOTS’ website, Valerie Gambrell doesn’t mince words: “My life goal is to help regain our federal recognition for the tribe.”
A military veteran who spent more than two decades as a social worker with the state’s Department of Children and Families, Gambrell has been a member of the Eastern Pequot Tribal Council for “more years than [she] can count.” She has served as comptroller and treasurer; her two adult children have also served on the Tribal Council.
“I’m not looking at federal recognition to tell me who I am. I already know I’m Eastern Pequot. I don’t need the white man to tell me,” Gambrell says. “We want to take care of our own people and we can’t do that—education, health care, our kids aren’t able to go to college because they don’t have the finances.”
The Eastern Pequots’ state recognition is older than the state itself, dating back 93 years before the signing of the Declaration of Independence, when the king of England and the colony of Connecticut deeded the tribe its reservation land. But only federally recognized tribes are granted certain inherent rights of self-governance—tribal sovereignty—and are entitled to receive certain federal benefits, services and protections, including aid for economic development, education, health care and housing.
In 2002, the Eastern Pequots were federally recognized by the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs, after the BIA agreed to consider together two separate petitions filed by two different groups of Eastern Pequots. But concerns about the impact of a possible third casino in the region—Foxwoods and the Mohegan Tribe’s Mohegan Sun had both opened in the 1990s—prompted the state and the towns of North Stonington, Ledyard and Preston to appeal the decision.
In response to the appeal, the BIA officially revoked federal recognition for the Eastern Pequots in 2005, marking the first time federal recognition had been rescinded for any tribe since the 1970s. The Eastern Pequots sued in 2012 to have the recognition reinstated. In 2015, state officials successfully lobbied for new rules that prohibit previously denied tribes from re-petitioning for recognition.
“We started this process in the 1970s, way before casinos,” Gambrell says. “We just want a fair process.”
INSIDE THE COLLEGE’S Winthrop Annex, sociology professor Ron Flores has covered one entire wall of his colorful, cozy office space with framed photos of baseball players, an homage to both his love of the game and his ongoing research into the sport’s rich ethnic history. A wall also features relics of his professional life, and Flores points to photos of Sonya Rao’13 and Nguyen as he details the origin of the College’s budding partnership with the Eastern Pequots.
Flores, who joined Connecticut College in 2009, remembers telling Rao, now a teaching assistant and doctoral candidate in the anthropology department at UCLA, about the partnership he built between the Mohawk tribe and St. Lawrence University while he was a professor there.
“She said, ‘Let’s do it here!’ I told her if she wanted to do the work to apply for a grant to create a new participatory action research course, I would do it,” Flores says.
The course, Native American: Genocide and Resistance, has no syllabus, and when it launched in the fall of 2012, it had no tribal partner, either.
“I knew there were several tribes in the region, but being new to the area, I wasn’t familiar with them,” Flores says. “I learned about the Eastern Pequots and I thought, ‘This is one group that has a story to tell.’ And boy, did they ever.”
Flores says his course isn’t about “helping;” it’s about building community. He and his students meet with members of the tribe; learn about their history, needs and concerns; and work together on projects of mutual interest. Those have included a photo voice project on Eastern Pequot identity, which students and members of the tribe presented at the 2015 TEDxConnecticutCollege event, as well as the community garden initiative.
The partnership is now expanding to include other departments and independent student initiatives, such as Nguyen’s Davis Project for Peace work. Since the Eastern Pequots don’t have any community buildings on their reservation, the Tribal Council meets once a week on campus. This fall, the College celebrated Indigenous Peoples Day with a panel discussion that included representatives from the Eastern Pequot Tribal Nation, as well as from several other nearby tribal nations.
On the day we meet in his office, Flores has just submitted a grant proposal to bring 197 boxes of the Eastern Pequots’ historical documents—the tribe’s entire written historical record—to Conn. Currently, the tribe is paying for them to be stored with a private records management company.
Flores hopes the collection will be a catalyst for a robust native studies program at Conn, but at the very least, housing the historical documents in the College’s archives will make them accessible to members of the tribe, as well as students, researchers and historians whose scholarship could aid in the tribe’s quest for recognition.
“There has been considerable scrutiny of the Eastern Pequots’ case—their acceptance, the appeals; it has all been presented to the public by politicians, the media, everyone but the Eastern Pequots,” says Flores. “They would finally have a voice, a means to tell their story.”
It’s a story Gambrell wants told.
“I want people to know our history. I want people to study us. We have people fighting us who don’t know who we are. We want people to know what we went through, how sacred the land is to us,” Gambrell says.
“Ask us who we are. We will shout it from the rooftops.”