January 25: The Mohegan Tribal Nation’s Quest for Federal Recognition


Today in 1994, members of the Mohegan Tribe in southeastern Connecticut saw their fifteen-year-old petition for federal recognition move forward, as the 103rd Congress convened in Washington D.C. and legislators, for the first time, began crafting the act that would formally recognize the Mohegan Tribe on the highest (and most highly-coveted) federal level.

While the Mohegan Tribe could easily trace its history back to before the 17th century, its quest for formal recognition by the U.S. government had begun in earnest in 1978, when it submitted a formal application to the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs.  In pursuing federal recognition, the Mohegans stated that they were primarily seeking “the ability to govern [their] own affairs, access to federal programs, and federal protection for tribal lands, including graves.”  Implicit was also the likelihood that, once recognized by the federal government as a sovereign Indian nation, the Mohegans would be able to build a casino to generate tribal revenue. The Mashantucket Pequot Tribe, the only other Connecticut Indian nation to receive Federal recognition, had opened the massive Foxwoods Resort Casino on their property in 1992, and it was no secret that many Mohegans hoped to follow a similar path.

It took several months to clear all the bureaucratic hoops necessary for the tribe’s petition to reach completed status: In March, the Department of the Interior formally recognized the Mohegan Tribe, and in October, Congress officially passed the Mohegan Nation (Connecticut) Land Claim Settlement Act, which settled a long-standing Mohegan lawsuit against Connecticut in exchange for federal permission to pursue gambling and gaming options on tribally-owned land.   Two years later, the Mohegan Sun casino, situated on the banks of the Thames River in Uncasville, Connecticut, opened its doors to the public — but more importantly, as Chief Ralph Sturgis noted, the Mohegan people could now proudly declare: “We are no longer the little old tribe that lives upon the hill. We are now the Nation that lives upon the hill.”  An ancient people reclaimed an ancient nation — today in Connecticut history.

Further Reading

Melissa Tantaquidgeon Zobel, “Mohegan Federal Recognition,” connecticuthistory.org