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The Schaghticoke: A recognition question

Updated 9:35 am, Tuesday, August 27, 2013

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  • Richard Velky of Woodbury, chief of the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation.

Spectrum file Photo: Norm Cummings
    Richard Velky of Woodbury, chief of the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation. Spectrum file Photo: Norm Cummings

 

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The polished granite monument designating the final resting places of James Harris, his wife, Sarah, and their daughter, Elsie, stands out in the small tribal cemetery on the Schaghticoke Indian Reservation.

Many of the other markers lack names and are only rough-hewn stone slabs.

There is no doubt, said Alan Russell, who's lived on the 400-acre reservation since 1949, the James Harris buried there was his great-grandfather and a legitimate member of the beleaguered tribe.

The group has been split for nearly three decades into two factions -- the Schaghticoke Indian Tribe headed by Russell and the larger Schaghticoke Tribal Nation, led by Richard Velky.

There are questions, according to Russell and other SIT members, about Velky, who is his second cousin.

Velky also traces his tribal lineage to James Harris.

He led the decade-long fight that, in 2004, gained the STN recognition from the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs -- a decision reversed a year later under political pressure.

"The man's a fraud," said Gail Harrison, Russell's sister and vice chairman of the SIT. "He is not a Schaghticoke. He was scamming investors by using the Schaghticoke name."

Velky, who lives in Woodbury, flatly refuses to address the charge.

"I'm not going to respond to that," he said. "I do all my responding to tribal members."

The allegations are not new.

SIT members, who broke away after a disputed tribal meeting in 1987, at which Velky was named chief for life, first raised them with the Bureau of Indian Affairs more than 10 years ago, although the BIA eventually said there wasn't enough evidence to conclude Velky was not descended from a Schaghticoke.

Yet they could take on fresh significance in light of the BIA's recent announcement it is considering new rules many believe would make it easier for tribes to be recognized.

Under the proposed regulations, tribes would only have to trace their ancestry and continuity as a tribal organization back to 1934, rather than to "first contact" with white settlers, which in Connecticut would be the 1600s.

Velky has not publicly said whether the STN would try to submit another application if the regulations were to be changed.

That might not happen for at least a year, until the proposals are aired at a series of public hearings.

Late last year, the SIT renewed its own long-dormant bid for recognition, one that had been put on hold, business manager Bill Buchanan said, while they waited for the STN application "to run out of gas."

With recognition would come the status of a sovereign nation, which in recent years has meant allowing Indian tribes to operate casinos and, in the Schaghticokes' case, could reactivate claims to hundreds of acres of former reservation land in the center of Kent peeled away from them over the years.

If recognition were to be granted, it could only be given to one of the groups, according to federal regulations.

Tracing the split

Indians have occupied the rocky mountainside bordering the Housatonic River since the 1730s, when survivors of several other tribes, driven off their land by white settlers, joined to form the Schaghticokes. Their reservation, granted by the General Assembly of the Colony of Connecticut in 1736, is one of the oldest in the United States.

Between 1801 and 1911, the former 2,000-plus-acre tract was whittled down to its current 400 acres through a series of sales engineered by state-appointed agents, without approval from the federal government.

As the years passed, most tribal members moved off the reservation. Yet many older members still tell stories of going there on weekends to camp, fish and hunt.

Russell and his wife, along with Harrison, her husband and two of her sons -- all SIT members -- are the only Schaghticokes who live in the few remaining houses on the reservation, though both groups have access to it, a reality that has sparked a number of confrontations.

In 1987, decades of feuding, much of it based along family lines, came to a head when Velky was named chief at a tribal meeting that opponents claim was invalid because only a handful of members, most of them related to him, voted.

The Schaghticokes split into two groups, the STN, which claims about 300 members, and the SIT, which numbers about 95, both claiming to be the legitimate Schaghticoke tribe.

Difficulties of documentation

In the late 1990s, as the Schaghticokes' recognition bid picked up steam, the STN gained financial backing from wealthy investors such as Subway restaurants founder Fred DeLuca.

Hoping to cash in if the tribe were able to open a casino, a Chicago businessman named Wells Offutt decided to document his own links to the tribe.

Offutt, who was raised in New Haven, left Connecticut in 1968 and was not allied at the time with either the SIT or the STN group; he traces his own Indian heritage to families who were founding members of the tribe.

"People were scrambling to get recognition, so I decided to assist by having my own genealogy done so I wouldn't be left off the tribal rolls," he said.

Offutt hired a lawyer and a private investigator to trace his family tree. Their search yielded information that raised questions about Velky's claim to be a Schaghticoke, he said.

Velky traces his tribal lineage through his mother, Catherine Velky, the daughter of former tribal chairman Irving Harris, who was the son of Howard N. Harris; that Howard Harris was the son of James Henry Harris, a Schaghticoke, and Sarah Harris, a white woman.

The problem, according to Offutt and SIT members, is that Sarah Harris had several husbands, and two were named James.

James Harris, the Schaghticoke who is buried on the reservation, died in 1909.

Sarah, whose last name also appears as Snyder, Schneider, Collins and Williams on various tribal and town records, also had children with a white man named James McEwen.

They claim Howard, whose birth year is listed on various records as 1898, 1899 and 1900, was not the son of James Harris, the Schaghticoke, but of James McEwen, who they said married Sarah in 1893.

"Whether or not Velky `fit the parameters' to be considered a Schaghticoke "was certainly a question," said New Milford lawyer Rudy Kuss, who conducted the genealogy search.

Concerns in Kent

Under current federal regulations, the STN is barred from again seeking recognition from the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Since its appeal of the 2005 reversal has been denied by the federal courts, and the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case, their only recourse is to seek recognition through Congress.

"They had their shot at it," said Sarcone, the attorney representing the SIT. "They tried, they lost. They had their bite at the apple. The Velky group doesn't have the ability to be considered again."

At this point, Sarcone said, the only Schaghticokes who can apply are the SIT members, who were not party to the STN's efforts.

Russell said it is possible, however, the new guidelines to be considered by the BIA may give the STN another shot.

"We don't know what will happen," he said.

First Selectman Bruce Adams of Kent said he wasn't even aware the SIT is now pushing forward with its own application.

He said the bureau's announcement has again raised tensions in town, which spent more than $300,000 to fight the STN application.

"The overriding concern is that we could potentially have a sovereign nation on the other side of the river that has its own laws, and we wouldn't have any say in what happens there," Adams said.

Adams has already met with state and federal lawmakers to discuss how they would deal with proposed changes and to express the town's continued opposition to federal recognition.

While construction of a casino on the reservation is a major worry, "recognition opens the door to other things," Adams said.

Among them would be potential tribal claims on former reservation land.

Kent School, the town's sewer treatment plant and significant tracts of private property could be affected, he said.

On the recommendation of the former town attorney, town officials included $30,000 in the current municipal budget for legal fees to contest any future recognition efforts, Adams said.

"If this continues to progress, $30,000 is not going to go very far," he said.

jpirro@newstimes.com; 203-731-3342