The Lost Tribe?

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He calls himself Chief Quiet Hawk, and true to his name, he usually answers questions by fax. But on this day he is visiting Washington to press the case of his people, and he has agreed to meet at a restaurant favored by lobbyists, just a block from the White House. A solidly built man in a dark business suit, Quiet Hawk--born 55 years ago as Aurelius Piper--picks at a salad and steak as he explains his crusade to win federal recognition as an Indian tribe for himself and his 324 followers, most from the area around Bridgeport, Conn. "I'm trying," he says, "to get the best possible deal for the tribe to live out its culture and heritage."

And what would he and his followers do if they won Washington's seal of approval? They would seek return of some of their ancestral lands, he says, on which they would establish a museum and model village. And that's not all. "We're talking," he adds, "about having the largest casino in the world."

Three times over the past five years, the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs has rejected the petitions of Quiet Hawk and his followers, ruling that they failed to demonstrate sufficient links to the Golden Hill Paugussett tribe from which they claim to be descended. The ancestral Paugussetts were hunting and fishing around Bridgeport when the first English settlers arrived in the 1600s, but their numbers had dwindled by the late 1800s. Despite his setbacks, Quiet Hawk, a former social worker who now labors full time on his crusade, has persisted--and has persuaded the BIA to take an unusual fourth look at his group's appeal for recognition.

Billions of dollars are riding on the decision, expected by midyear. With federal recognition, Quiet Hawk's Paugussetts--factory and government workers, small-business owners and retirees--would become, in many respects, a sovereign nation and could, with the state's approval, open their casino. And not just any casino. Their preferred site would be on the Bridgeport waterfront--only 55 miles from New York City, and even nearer to the city's wealthy northern suburbs.

Profits, gambling experts say, would be at least $1 million a day. Connecticut's two existing Indian casinos have already proved the potential. The Foxwoods casino, hard by the Rhode Island border and run by the Mashantucket Pequot tribe, is the largest-grossing gambling complex in the world. The Mohegan Sun casino in Uncasville, run by the Mohegan tribe, announced plans earlier this month for an $800 million expansion, including a 40-story hotel.

"There's a substantial market there, a good market," says Thomas Wilmot, a Rochester, N.Y., real estate developer. He has invested more than $4 million underwriting the lawyers, genealogists and historians who are helping make the case for federal recognition of the Quiet Hawk group. Wilmot says he will build and manage the casino if the Paugussetts get the go-ahead.

The pride of claiming Native American lineage--as almost 2 million Americans did in the 1990 Census--has been joined by a big practical benefit since passage of the Indian Gaming Act in 1988. Today there are 198 tribes with some sort of gaming on their reservations. Some use the resulting income for community development, education and investment. Others simply make big payouts to their members. The Shakopee, a small Minnesota tribe, writes checks for as much as $700,000 to each of its adult members every year. This kind of jackpot has attracted a host of non-Indian investors, willing to put up millions of dollars to back would-be Indian tribes in their attempts to win federal recognition.

"Ever since we allowed Indians to have gaming, we have made them into wonderful bets for big-money interests," says Representative Christopher Shays, a Connecticut Republican who opposes the Quiet Hawk group's efforts. His district includes much of the land entangled in what he calls the group's "bogus" land claims, which sweep across much of western Connecticut, including land occupied by Bridgeport city hall, Trumbull town hall, the headquarters of People's Bank and hundreds of private homes. Quiet Hawk retorts that the casino issue came up long after his group began its quest for recognition and real estate--which by now includes land claims filed on about 1,000 acres of Connecticut.

Quiet Hawk's Paugussetts have long been recognized as a tribe by the state of Connecticut, but that status required scant proof of lineage and carries few benefits. Only 10 of the modern Paugussetts live on the group's two reservations: a quarter-acre lot in the town of Trumbull and 106 acres in Colchester. There a metal gate blocks the gravel drive, and a NO TRESPASSING sign bars the curious from visiting the two mobile homes inside. A mailbox reads GOLDEN HILL RES.

What's at issue is not whether the Golden Hill Paugussetts ever existed as a tribe, but whether Quiet Hawk's group is descended from them as a tribe. Historical documents show that as early as 1639 the Paugussetts asked the Governor of Massachusetts to help them recover "squaws" taken into slavery by English settlers. At that time the tribe numbered about 800 members, who fished the Housatonic and Naugatuck rivers and cultivated corn and other vegetables. Sun worshippers, they prayed to the east every morning. Many Paugussetts died fighting in the 1637 Pequot War against the English. After that war, much of their land was sold or taken away. By 1875 the Paugussetts had only a quarter-acre left, and the tribe had greatly dispersed.

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