The Schaghticoke Tribal Nation — whose members reside in one of the country’s oldest reservations — and MGM Resorts International are suing the state of Connecticut for the right to open casinos.

The Schaghticoke Tribal Nation, officially recognized by the state but not the federal government, hopes to build a casino on non-reservation land in Connecticut. Currently, federal law only permits federally recognized tribes to build casinos on reservation lands. Special Act No. 15-7, a Connecticut act passed June 19, blocks all parties besides federally recognized tribes from applying for a license to build casinos anywhere in the state. Schaghticoke Tribal Chief Richard Velky filed a lawsuit Monday, arguing that Special Act No. 15-7 is unconstitutional. Special Act No. 15-7, and not federal law, is barring the tribe from building a casino.

“Under the Equal Protection clauses of the federal and state constitutions, the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation should have the same right to pursue this economic opportunity as anyone else,” Velky said at a Monday press conference.

Casinos operated on reservations serve as economic opportunities for Native nations, whose citizens often live in impoverished communities and lack economic opportunities, Velky said.

He said that if his nation is able to open a casino, he will ensure the jobs that come from the new venture go to Schaghticoke Tribal Nation citizens.

“To us, tribal gaming is about creating an economic opportunity for an impoverished people and if we were permitted to pursue gaming, we would use that opportunity to create jobs for us and for the surrounding communities,” he said.

The Schaghticoke Tribal Nation, which resides on a 400-acre reservation in Kent, Connecticut, was granted federal recognition in 2004. This status was revoked just a year later because the state of Connecticut argued that the nation does not fulfill enough of the requirements for it to qualify for federal recognition. A June 29 revision to the federal recognition application process blocks Native nations from pursuing federal recognition more than once.

But more than 10 years on, Velky said controversy remains around the true reason behind his tribe’s swift loss of status.

“The state has a long history of discriminating against the Schaghticoke,” Velky said in a March 4 press release. “The Schaghticoke Tribal Nation seeks equal treatment under the law and that does not exist under Connecticut Special Act No. 15-7.”

He added that the state fought their federal recognition in 2005 because Connecticut did not want another casino at the time. But he said Special Act No. 15-7 appears unfair now the state is granting licenses for more casinos.

The Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan Tribes — which are the only two entities allowed to build casinos in the state of Connecticut, on or off reservation lands — announced plans last September to build a joint commercial casino to compete with the $950 million casino that MGM Resort International plans to build in Springfield, Massachusetts. Already, the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan Tribe — dubbed “The Privileged Tribes” in the case document available on the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation’s official website — run Foxwoods Resort Casino and the Mohegan Sun Casino respectively. Both casinos are located on their respective reservations and bring substantial revenue into the Native nations as well as the state of Connecticut.

At a news conference after the announcement of the revision, Gov. Dannel Malloy said the revision represents a big victory for the state of Connecticut, noting that the fine print has yet to be finalized. Federal recognition allows tribal nations to claim reparations that could take resources and economic opportunities away from the state.

“These changes ensure that previously denied tribal groups in Connecticut will not get another bite at the apple, and that any future petitioners will not be advantaged because the core criteria the federal government employs to recognize a tribe has not changed,” Malloy said.

Director of Communications at the Office of Gov. Malloy Devon Puglia told the Connecticut Mirror last March that allowing nations to reapply for recognition would negatively impact the state economy.

The Schaghticoke Tribal Nation is not the only entity taking Connecticut to court due to Special Act No. 15-7.

MGM Resort International filed a lawsuit against the state of Connecticut Aug 4. following the announcement of Special Act No. 15-7. They argued that the gaming act, which grants federally recognized tribes exclusive rights to build casinos in the state, violates the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection clause and section 20 of article first of the Connecticut Constitution by giving preferential treatment to the Mohegan and Mashantucket Pequot tribes. But the suit was dismissed shortly after due to claims from Connecticut Assistant Attorney General Robert Deichert that MGM Resorts International based their legal complaint on a misinterpretation of the law.

The Schaghticoke tribe is now partnering with MGM Resorts International to sue for the ability to build off-reservation casinos.

While Velky is committed to a successful suit and a new casino in the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation reservation, not all Schaghticoke tribal members share his ambition. Ruth Garby Torres, a citizen of the Schaghticoke Nation said that Chief Velky’s views do not reflect those of the whole tribe.

“It’s safe to say that not everybody thinks this is a good idea,” she said.

She said the leadership of the tribe is failing and leaders are not thinking about the tribe as a whole. She added that the members of the tribe are concerned about the way this lawsuit may affect the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation’s relationships with the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, the Mohegan Tribe of Indians and the Connecticut state government.

The Schaghticoke Tribal Nation’s land was granted back to the Schaghticoke in 1736 by the General Assembly of the Colony of Connecticut.

HAYLEE KUSHI
KATHERINE MCCLEARY