Sovereignty the issue in tribal forum
By Karin Crompton
Publication: The Day
Published 02/28/2010 12:00 AM
Mashantucket Pequots put identity and independence in the forefront for their nation
Mashantucket - The dateline for this story is "Mashantucket" - and that, in itself, is very much the point that the speakers at a Saturday afternoon forum were trying to make.
The panel discussion was held at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum & Research Center and featured five speakers plus a moderator who each lectured on the complex issue of tribal sovereignty and its often contentious history in the United States.
The center, like Foxwoods Resort Casino next door, is located in Mashantucket.
It is not in Ledyard.
The speakers in the panel each reiterated for the audience of about 85 people the concept that Mashantucket is a sovereign nation, separate from the state of Connecticut and distinct, too, from the United States.
The museum is attempting to take a more aggressive stance in teaching the public about the issues of tribal sovereignty, indigenous rights and tribal citizenship.
Those ideas are often misunderstood, according to materials handed out at the event, "especially in New England, as the politics of race and Federal Recognition have been tangled with gaming rights."
Not about equality
Moderator J. Kehaulani Kauanui, associate professor of American Studies and Anthropology at Wesleyan University, led off by describing how people commonly confuse the issue with that of civil rights.
Kauanui read from a handful of reader comments posted on The Day's Web site earlier this week, when a preview of Saturday's event ran. The comments generally fell into the category of questioning why the tribe gets special status when, in the United States, "all men are created equal."
Kauanui and the other speakers told the audience that sovereignty is not about equality, race or civil rights. Rather, as the original inhabitants of the United States, the tribes are their own nations and abide by their own laws. They are nations within the United States, not, as one speaker pointed out, separate towns or municipalities.
The five panelists covered separate but overlapping topics, from the idea of cultural sovereignty - as opposed to strictly governmental sovereignty or the ability to game - to discussion of state and federal law from two of the tribe's attorneys.
Speaker James Jackson, treasurer of the Mashantucket Pequot Council, told the audience that confusion surrounding the issue was only exacerbated by zip codes; without consulting the Mashantucket tribe, Jackson said, the government at first assigned Mashantucket the same zip code as Ledyard.
Mashantucket finally got its own zip code in 2002, he said, but the confusion created a "geographical identity crisis" for the tribe in the meantime.
"There was (its) perceived inclusion as part of another entity," Jackson said.
John Echohawk, co-founder and executive director of the Native American Rights Fund, said Saturday's forum was key. "If you don't understand tribal sovereignty," Echohawk said, "you don't understand Indians; it's as simple as that."