This essay is offered as a tribute to Golden Hill Paugussett Chief Big Eagle and his defiance of the entrenched racism to which his tribal community has been subjected. I situate this analysis in Connecticut in the early 1970s at a moment of particular historical significance in tribal nations' centuries-long struggles to assert their sovereignty, defend reservation lands, and ensure their futures. I analyze how the racialization of Native peoples in Connecticut informed the state's management of “Indian affairs” in this period and argue that the virulent racism of the state's antirecognition policy in the late twentieth century reflects a long history of institutionally embedded racist policies and practices. In this essay, I call for politically engaged, antiracist research that is concerned with understanding the complexities of tribal sovereignty asserted in local contexts in which governmental control of Indian affairs reproduces and validates White-supremacist ideology.
Chief Big Eagle (Aurelius H. Piper, Sr.) died in August of 2008 on the one-quarter-acre reservation of the Golden Hill Paugussett Tribe in Trumbull, Connecticut. He was ninety-two and had been the Paugussetts’ hereditary tribal leader for over four decades. Those who knew him likely remember him as a force for justice who spoke in unvarnished terms about Native people’s everyday experiences of oppression and racism in Connecticut.1 In March 1974, The New York Times published an interview with Chief Big Eagle entitled “Connecticut Indians Act to Reclaim Reservation,” which detailed the Paugussetts’ legal effort to reclaim nineteen and three-fourths acres of historical reservation land of which they had been wrongfully dispossessed. Those among the Times’ national readership who had . . .
- 1During the early 1990s, I worked as a researcher and writer for the Golden Hill Paugussetts’ federal acknowledgment petition.
His fight for the future of his tribal nation drew broad public attention in the mid-1970s, well before federal acknowledgment petitions and tribally owned casinos became the focus of racist hostility in southern New England. Anthropologist Katherine Spilde coined the term “rich Indian racism” to describe the particular character of racism directed at economically successful tribal nations in the aftermath of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988. Jeff Corntassel and Richard C. Witmer define it as “false images related to indigenous gaming [that] are created and propagated by governmental and media entities.” Corntassel and Witmer explain that “rich Indian racism places indigenous peoples in a precarious position, where they constantly have to justify their existence both in terms of the legitimacy of their self-determination powers and proof of the ‘authenticity’ of their identities.” Jeff Corntassel and Richard Witmer II, Forced Federalism: Contemporary Challenges to Indigenous Nationhood (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2008), 4.