Eastern Pequot Nation with permission

In a state that boasts a robust coronavirus response, some of Connecticut’s Indigenous people feel like they’ve been left to fend for themselves.

“Our tribe has not received anything that has to do with COVID-19,” said Shoran Waupatukuay Piper, the clan mother of the Golden Hill Paugussett Tribe in Trumbull. “We haven’t heard from the state.”

Connecticut’s state-recognized tribes have long and painful histories of surviving the worst, and now they’re persevering through a global pandemic, mainly on their own. Unlike federally-recognized tribes, which qualify for federal aid, tribes like the Golden Hill often need to take matters into their own hands.

Connecticut has three state-recognized tribes: Golden Hill Paugussett, Paucatuck Eastern Pequot and Schaghticoke. Because they do not have federal recognition, their members do not receive federal benefits like the Mohegan and Mashantucket Pequot do. Each tribe owns reservation land and can regulate commerce on it, as well as regulating their membership. They cannot operate casinos.

Golden Hill’s women have turned their attention to sewing masks, and the tribe has secured a $1,000 health grant from a private donor to make every member — approximately 150 — a wellness kit. The tribe was also able to give gift cards for groceries to its families in need. So far, Piper said, they’ve avoided a COVID-19 outbreak with their own herbs and medicine.

But with state recognition, Piper said that the Golden Hill tribe shouldn’t have to shoulder all of the burden. She’d like to see Connecticut reach out with resources and give tribes a voice at the table when it comes to coronavirus response efforts.

“Those officials should already know to contact us,” Piper said.

The gap in communication is a nationwide problem. Though it’s clear that Native Americans are disproportionately affected by COVID-19, it’s hard to discern the exact impact the virus has had on tribes. Not all states have adequate racial and ethnic data, and for some, Indigenous people are missing entirely from COVID-19 counts.

Connecticut tracks Non-Hispanic American Indian or Alaskan Native infection rates, but prioritizes federally-recognized tribes in that data and in response efforts, according to Executive Director of the Health Education Center Michele Scott, who is an enrolled citizen of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation.

“In Connecticut specifically, it is pretty typical to include the two federally-recognized tribes to some degree, but very often the three state-recognized tribes are disrespected by being overlooked,” Scott said, pointing to the Golden Hill tribe as an example.

Having Indigenous representation on all levels of pandemic response is important, from the executive level to the local level. Connecticut’s two federally-recognized tribes have it in some measure. 

Mashantucket Pequot Chairman Rodney Butler is on the Reopen Connecticut Advisory Group and tribal leaders have worked closely with state officials to control the virus on the reservation. Mohegan Chief of Staff Chuck Bunnell said in an interview that the tribe’s relationship with the state is “excellent” as they work together to get PPE, testing and vaccinations for the region.

Golden Hill Paugussett Tribe with permission.

Max Reiss, Gov. Ned Lamont’s communications director, said in an email that the state has a “cooperative relationship” with tribal health departments. Other state officials did not respond to repeated requests for further clarification of those relationships.

Scott, who is also the board chair of the nonprofit Health Equity Solutions, reiterated that state-recognized tribes don’t have such opportunities to have their voices at the table. The state, she explained, needs to make the effort to “respectfully” collect data from all Indigenous people.

“It’s those other tribes that go overlooked and it’s always been like that,” Scott said. “I guess COVID just kind of highlighted how disposable and disregarded some of the tribal communities are treated in the state.”

It can get discouraging. At the Eastern Pequot Nation in North Stonington, Tribal Councilor La’Tasha Maddox said Connecticut should fulfill its promises. 

At a time when staying healthy to avoid infection is critical, the tribe has been without access to clean drinking water on their reservation for months.  Maddox said the state began searching for funding to fix the reservation’s wells only late last year. In the meantime, members have to buy clean drinking water. 

Maddox noted the Eastern Pequot Nation did receive some masks from state Sen. Cathy Osten, but it took securing a small grant from the NDN Collective, which helps Indigenous people, to get more masks, gloves and cleaning supplies. The tribe is continuing to work with tribal, local and state resources to access COVID-19 funds and the vaccine.

Moreover, when she couldn’t get enough food for everyone in need through a food drive, Maddox said the Eastern Pequot Nation’s leaders and the board of the Wuttooantam Foundation used their own money to feed tribal members. 

The Eastern Pequot Nation collects its own infection data so that it can apply for grants. They have been hit hard by the coronavirus, Maddox said, which adds to the disappointment of not receiving adequate aid, even if the state is now trying to work with the tribe.

“I couldn’t believe the amounts of people that got tested positive for COVID,” Maddox said. “If it’s not them, it’s their spouse.”

Tribal members and advocates agree: the state reaching out a helping hand to state-recognized tribes would be incredibly beneficial, especially as they grapple with the pandemic. 

Scott said that improving the relationship between Connecticut and state-recognized tribes is very doable, and that it doesn’t need to be a token “special project with its own special budget.”

“It is possible to be the model. I know that Connecticut is in a place where we can be a model in how the state recognizes sovereign nations and how to combat the disproportionate numbers in tribal communities,” she said.