Sunday, August 17, 2008

Tribes In The Media: Paugussett Chief Big Eagle Dies At Age 92

This installment of the Tribes In The Media is an Indian Country Today article on the passing of Paugussett Chief Big Eagle, a.k. Aurelius Piper, Sr.

Not mentioned in the article is that Chief Big Eagle was also predeceased by his son, Kenneth "MoonFace Bear" Piper, the Paugussett self-declared War Chief who led the 13-week armed standoff against the state police in 1993. The standoff ocurred on the Tribe's Colchester Reservation over a cigarette sales tax dispute with the state of Connecticut.

Hundreds mourn passing of Golden Hill Paugussett chief
Indian Country Today
By Gale Courey Toensing
August 15, 2008

TRUMBULL, Conn. - More than 200 people attended a traditional mourning walk Aug. 7 for Chief Big Eagle, the hereditary chief of the Golden Hill Paugussett Tribe.

Big Eagle, known also as Aurelius Piper Sr., died Aug. 3 at one of the tribe's two reservations - the tiny one-quarter-acre reservation in Trumbull. He was 92.

The mourning walk was led by a drum on the back of a black pickup truck. Big Eagle's cremated remains were carried in a pouch by his son, Little Eagle, from the reservation to the Nichols Farms Cemetery a little less than a mile away. The remains were escorted by a group of young men wearing red bandanas and carrying a blessing ceremonial blanket. Family members and close friends accompanied the procession to the cemetery, where they were met by the crowd that had gathered for the event.

A ceremony took place in the cemetery that included smudging, the recitation of the Christian Lord's Prayer and the singing of "Amazing Grace," a bugler playing taps, and a nine-gun military salute to honor Big Eagle's participation in World War II in North Africa.

After the ceremony, the drum led the procession back to the reservation. Local police blocked off the road to accommodate the mourning walk.

Big Eagle was a giant among the state's Indian activists in the 20th century. He dedicated his life to keeping the name of the Golden Hill Paugussetts alive and to preserving and promoting Indian culture worldwide. Those who came to honor Big Eagle described him as a fearless, generous spirit who was both gruff and gentle, and given to random acts of kindness.

Linda Gray, Schaghticoke, recalled such an act in the 1970s after her divorce.

"Two years after my son was born, I was having a rough time being on my own. I went to numerous Native people to ask for help with heating," she said. "No one could help, but Aurelius heard about it and he contacted me. We went to the Connecticut gas company and other places, and he somehow got the money to help me through the winter with heat for myself and my son. He didn't have to do that, and that's my good memory of him.

"He knew my sister, tribal historian [the late] Pauline Crone Morange. They were good friends and that's why I know when he passed Pauline was up there at the gate waiting for him with a smile."

Amy Den Ouden, professor of anthropology at the University of Massachusetts - Boston and author of "Beyond Conquest: Native Peoples and the Struggle for History in New England," worked on the tribe's federal recognition petition and testified in court on the tribe's land claims in the early 1990s.

"When my son, Liam, was born, Chief Big Eagle sent a beautiful necklace he had made for him along with a gracious note to Liam. He was a truly good-hearted man in every way," Den Ouden said.

Mohegan tribal historian and medicine woman Melissa Zobel recalled Big Eagle as "a leading figure in Connecticut Indian affairs" when she was a girl.

"One of my fondest memories of him was at the opening of the Mashantucket casino in 1992. He was a very traditional man and I was wearing my regalia, and I remember him saying to me, 'It's nice to see an Indian woman properly dressed. I'm going to stay with you today because I don't want to be around any Indian women dressed in European clothes, so you stick right with me.' I was very honored."

The Golden Hill Paugussett Tribe has been recognized by the state for more than 300 years, but its petition for federal recognition was vigorously opposed and defeated by state officials and local towns, including Trumbull.

Trudi Lamb Richmond, a Schaghticoke elder and director of public programs at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum & Research Center, remembered how Big Eagle worried about providing a land base, other than the one-quarter ace, for tribal members.

"I think he found out he could get land through HUD [the federal Housing and Urban Development] and put it into trust. Everyone in Trumbull was all excited about it. They thought, 'Let's help him get another reservation and get him the hell out of Trumbull.' They could hardly wait. So finally, the Colchester property was agreed upon - the 118 - 120 acres. And when it was signed, sealed and delivered, the Trumbull people said, "OK, Piper, when are you leaving?' He told them, 'I never said I was leaving here. This is where I belong and I'm not moving," she said.

Big Eagle co-authored "Quarter Acre of Heartache," the story of his legal struggle to save a tiny remnant of land from the original reserve established for the tribe in 1658 on Golden Hill, which is now part of Bridgeport.

He was named "Chief of the Century" by the Florida chapter of the White Buffalo Society "for his work in furthering Native American causes in Connecticut, across the country and abroad."

He also served on many boards and commissions in the state and as a spiritual liaison to Indians in prison. He was also the owner-operator of a long distance trucking business for 40 years.

He is survived by his wife, Marsha Conte Piper, and their children, Sharon and Little Eagle Piper. He also leaves his children, Aurelius H. Piper Jr. (Chief Quiet Hawk), Julia Piper and Aurelius Piper; two adopted daughters, Irina Piper and Sue Baldwin; several stepchildren, grandchildren and great-grandchildren; and an extensive web of in-laws, cousins, nieces, nephews and friends worldwide.

Golden Hill Paugussetts to continue quest for federal recognition

As family members and friends gathered in a circle near the headstone of Golden Hill Paugussett matriarch, Chieftess Rising Star, to commemorate the death of her son, Chief Big Eagle, also known as Aurelius Piper Sr., a red-tailed hawk shot out of the nearby woods and circled over the group.

Tribal members and supporters said the hawk's flight was an auspicious sign for the tribe's future.

Big Eagle's son, Aurelius Piper Jr. - Chief Quiet Hawk - could not attend his father's memorial event, but his half-sister, Shoran Piper, read a letter he had written to honor his father:

"Today we are saying goodbye to our chief, a great man, a visionary, a man of honor and valor who has lead our tribe through turbulent times with integrity and honor. Today is also a day I must say goodbye to my father. He was not only a father to me, but also my very best friend.

"He was a warm-hearted man, sensitive and caring, but also bold and forceful. I love him dearly and it will be painful not to be able to look into his face, not to hear his voice or feel the touch of his hand."

Addressing his father directly, he promised to continue his father's legacy.

"Dad, you have given me a great task, to lead our tribe to the ultimate victory," Quiet Hawk wrote.

"The tribe is still pursuing federal recognition. We still believe there is information out there that supports our petition and we're working on retrieving that information to do that and we'll probably mount a federal court challenge," Quiet Hawk said in an exclusive interview with Indian Country Today.

The tribe filed a letter of intent to the BIA in 1982. Twenty-two years of controversy later, the tribe was denied federal recognition in a final determination in 2004.

Quiet Hawk said he believes some information that the tribe needs will emerge from the investigation surrounding convicted former Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

"The Abramoff investigation is still going on. He's being sentenced in September, but he's still working with them [the Justice Department] and it looks like it's broadened out, and I think that we'll find some of the information we need somewhere in there."

Although he said he was convinced that the rejection of the Golden Hill Paugussetts' federal recognition is linked to the Abramoff scandal, he was circumspect about the details.

"I think it involves a number of things I don't want to speculate on right now, but it is enough for us to be able to mount a court challenge based on a lot of other information we already have in the hopper so we're just waiting for all the information to get out."

Under Quiet Hawk's leadership, the tribe filed 19 land claims - some in federal court and others in state court - for thousands of acres of land, setting off panic among landowners and a flurry of legal challenges. Those land claims could be revived.

Quiet Hawk said the tribe plans to file challenges to the tribe's rejected federal recognition in both federal and state courts.

"One of the issues is that most of the land claims that everybody talked about are state land claims, so we would definitely have to go after the state. Everything would have to be re-filed."

The Golden Hills' federal recognition process was marked by controversy, stories of missing and withheld historical documents, but the tribe is not giving up.

"Oh no, not at all. We are constantly working both in Washington on the federal stuff and in the state, collecting documents." said Quiet Hawk, who divides his time between Washington and the state.

"Back in the early days we found [state Attorney General Richard] Blumenthal holding back documents, and we know there are documents that have disappeared out of libraries and town halls. We're just working hard to make sure we have all the information we can before we mount a court challenge."

The tribe hopes to be in that position by the end of the year.