During the 2021 legislative session and its immediate aftermath, State Senator Cathy Osten’s politics were tribal.
She continued to advocate for the legalization of sports betting and online gaming that the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes were seeking. She was successful in securing a place for Native American history in public school curricula, and she won the removal of a statue much hated by Pequots from outside the State Capitol. She pushed through a budget provision that encourages public schools across the state to ditch Native American mascots that many see as inappropriate and even offensive.
And, she landed $ 3 million worth of pork for the Eastern Pequots, Schaghticokes, and Golden Hill Paugussetts.
“It was not my first session,” said Osten, Sprague’s Democrat. “He was my luckiest.”
Indeed, the “stars were lined up” for legislative action on expanding the games this year, as Rodney Butler, Chairman of Mashantucket, said during the final round of negotiations between Butler; his counterpart from Mohegan, James Gessner Jr.; Governor Ned Lamont; and their lieutenants. As it had done in previous years, Osten submitted a bill before the start of the session calling for granting tribes the exclusive right to offer sports betting and online gaming in the state.
When Lamont announced in early March that his office had struck a deal with the Mohegans but not the Mashantuckets – a deal that provided Connecticut Lottery Corp. with some of the sports betting action – Osten and the other members of the Eastern Connecticut legislature delegation cried foul.
“I had to make sure the governor knew that the legislature was not going to approve a deal with one tribe and not the other,” said Osten, who challenged what she called the “divide and conquer” strategy. used by Lamont to go public with the Mohegans accepting the deal in an attempt to force the Mashantuckets to line up.
“Cathy helped keep everyone at the table,” Gessner said. “It was a negotiation between the tribes and the governor, but the people knew that whatever we agreed to went to the Legislature. People knew Cathy had a bill and was doing press conferences. His message was: ‘You understand where I’m going.’ “
The Mohegans and Mashantuckets, the only sovereign and federally recognized Indian tribes in Connecticut, rarely, if ever, had a lawyer like Osten in Hartford or Washington, DC Gessner said it would have to go back to the time of former US Sen Chris Dodd, while Butler suggested that the tribes had not seen such “passionate support” since Ella Grasso was governor and US Representative Sam Gejdenson represented eastern Connecticut.
“Having a lawmaker like Cathy – a non-native – in your corner is really something,” Gessner said. “People say Deb Haaland (the Native American who heads the US Department of the Interior, which oversees Indian affairs) will see it differently because she’s a native, but Cathy isn’t and she has it. always.”
“She has always been someone who sees us as a big family, not just a big company,” he said. “When people call us the ‘Mohegan Sun Tribe’ it drives me crazy. “
First elected to the state Senate in 2012, Osten, now in her fifth term, said she quickly realized Connecticut had more or less abandoned the five tribes it legally recognizes. In addition to the Mohegans and Mashantuckets, the list includes three tribes that do not have the federal recognition that allows a tribe to practice tribal play: the Pequots of East North Stonington; the Schaghticokes of Kent and the Golden Hill Paugussetts, who have reserve lands in Trumbull and Colchester.
Their situation piqued Osten’s interest.
“There is a law that says the state is responsible for these tribes, but we weren’t complying with it, which is not unusual for an old law,” she said.
In the 1970s, a statute amendment created the Connecticut Indian Council, an eight-member body comprising one representative from each of the five tribes and three non-native members appointed by the governor. An online list of current members identifies one, Shoran Piper of the Paugussetts. Seven seats are vacant.
“It’s not operational. It hasn’t met for a number of years, probably over 10 years, ”said Edith Pestana, environmental justice program administrator at the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, of advice. It is possible that the council has not met since the Mashantuckets and Mohegan were recognized by the federal government decades ago – despite the requirement to file an annual report, she said.
Senator Heather Somers, Republican from Groton, introduced a bill in the recent legislative session that sought to reconvene the council “and clarify the responsibilities of the state with respect to the maintenance and provision of state reserve services ”. The measure has stalled in the Committee on Government Administration and Elections.
Osten has shown that his tribal advocacy extends beyond the boundaries of his 19th Senate District, which encompasses the Mashantucket and Mohegan reservations and their respective casinos, Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun. In an interview, she recalled meeting Richard Velky, the chief of Schaghticoke, at a legislative hearing. At the time, Velky was opposed to state support for the efforts of the casino-owning tribes to develop a third casino in Connecticut.
After the state enacted legislation allowing the Mashantuckets and Mohegans to form a joint venture and begin researching casino site proposals, MGM Resorts International and the Schaghticokes filed separate lawsuits in federal court. MGM, an enemy of the tribes, funded the Schaghticoke challenge. Neither combination succeeded.
“I went down and saw their reservation in Kent,” Osten said of the Schaghticokes. “We just talk, and no games. … I told Velky to take as much money as possible from MGM.
Velky showed Osten a tribal graveyard likely to be inundated for decades, a problem and a need for funding that she solved. Osten also visited the Golden Hill Paugussett and Eastern Pequot reservations, adding requests for assistance from these tribes to a list of legislative initiatives she has pursued year after year.
In June, after the legislature approved the state budget, Osten, co-chair of the appropriations committee, ensured that the accompanying bill included funding for three tribal construction projects: $ 1 million dollars for a retaining wall at Schaghticoke Cemetery; $ 1.5 million for a well, a septic tank and an access road for the East Pequots; and $ 500,000 for a community building for the Paugussets.
Osten also leaned on the implementer to push forward a measure requiring local school boards to include Native American history in their social studies curricula, starting in the 2023-24 school year, and a provision binding municipal grants Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan Fund to a ban on public grants. Native American mascot use by schools. Osten had submitted bills to achieve these two goals, neither of which was heard.
Osten had also introduced legislation calling for the relocation of a statue of Major John Mason, a controversial figure who led English forces against the Pequots during the “Massacre at Mystic” of 1637, the pivotal battle of the Pequot War. By passing the state budget, lawmakers approved funding for moving the statue from the facade of the State Capitol to Old State House in Hartford.
This was another case in which an initiative was approved without public scrutiny.
Osten makes no apologies, noting that the implementation process has been in place for some time. She said she believed all Native American-related initiatives had bipartisan support and would have been approved if they had been put to individual votes.
For the tribes, teaching Native American history was the most important of the tribal issues she championed, Osten said.
“They want to be incorporated into the history of Connecticut,” she said. “As someone told me, ‘The story has to be told by those who came on the boats and those who were already ashore.’”
Osten said the Mashantuckets and Eastern Pequots erected Mason’s statue shortly after he took office. To pursue it, one had to navigate between the Pequots and the Mohegans, who were aligned with the English during the Pequot War but who, Osten said, took no part in the massacre of Pequot women and children led by Mason.
The Mohegans have issued a statement supporting the removal of the statue.
Osten’s critics point to the connection between the ban on Native American mascots and municipal grants as an example of what they see as Osten’s penchant for brutality.
The ban would prevent any municipality in which a public school uses a Native American “name, symbol or image” as a “mascot, nickname, logo or team name” from receiving a grant from the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan Fund. The subsidies come from the state’s 25% share of gross slots revenue that tribal casinos generate.
Should a city whose teams “disrespect” the tribes expect to benefit from the income they produce?
Osten said the idea to tie the subsidies to the ban on Native American mascots came from someone “outside the legislature,” but declined to say who.
“It’s a bit poetic from my point of view,” she said of the link.