“More Than a Land Acknowledgement” was Fairfield University’s first faculty-run, public gathering that addressed the Indigenous roots and meaning of the land that the town of Fairfield currently occupies. The two-hour Peace & Justice Studies event consisted of a panel held in the DiMenna-Nyselius Library multimedia room on Tuesday, April 4.
The panel was composed of Fairfield University faculty proctors Sonya Huber, English Department, Anna Lawrence, Ph.D. History Department and Melissa Quan, Ph.D., Director of the Center for Social Impact. On the far left end of the table sat Golden Hill Paugussett Nation Clan Mother Shoran Waupatuquay Piper.
According to the event program, the Land Acknowledgement “has not been adopted by any formal bodies or by the leadership at Fairfield University.” Yet, Quan holds that the document is offered in the spirit of taking the next right step and may lead to more formal adoption.
“We felt that growing a culture and awareness of this practice on campus was important as a first step.” She then directed her next words at the audience: “So all of you, now, are a part of this work.”
“We called this panel ‘More than a Land Acknowledgement’ because we don’t want this to be a paragraph of language that gets recited in a rogue manner, we want this to be an important regular reminder and a call to action in solidarity to decolonial work more broadly and to deepen alliances, specifically with the Golden Hill Paugussett Tribe,” Quan continued.
The Known Land Territories Campaign states that “a Land Acknowledgement is a formal statement that recognizes the unique and enduring relationship that exists between Indigenous Peoples and their traditional territories.”
They describe that “to recognize the land is an expression of gratitude and appreciation to those whose territory you reside on and a way of honoring the Indigenous people who have been living and working on the land from time immemorial. It is important to understand the long-standing history that has brought you to reside on the land and to seek to understand your place within that history.”
“Land acknowledgments do not exist in a past tense or historical context: colonialism is a current ongoing process, and we need to build our mindfulness of our present participation. It is also worth noting that acknowledging the land is [an] Indigenous protocol,” they continue.
The Land Acknowledgement served as a public engagement with the question of land recognition and a discussion of how Fairfield University’s North Benson Road campus might step further into relation with the Golden Hill Paugussett Nation.
“Fairfield University is located on the traditional homeland of the Golden Hill Paugussett Nation, once called The Paugussett whose land was seized by local settlers,” explains Quan.
She affirms, “We hold in our hearts and awareness the great historical and contemporary harm carried out against indigenous communities around the globe. We honor the tenacity and wisdom in which these communities, including the Golden Hill Paugussett Nation, were able to survive and maintain their communities and their shared cultures. We commit to walk in solidarity towards a more regenerative and equitable future.”
Quan concluded her opening remarks with the statement: “Join us in acknowledging their community, their elders both past and present, as well as future generations.”
The History of the Paugussett Nation
Currently, The Paugussett nation has around 150 members, with members living throughout the whole East Coast, from Maine to down South—with the majority of active members still living in Connecticut. The tribe has two reservations in Connecticut, one in Trumbull and one in Colchester. The one in Trumbull is the oldest—dating back to 1639.
According to the event program, The Golden Hill Paugussett Nation’s “traditional homeland extended from Milford to the Saugatuck River. After the Mystic Massacre near Mystic, Connecticut, and the subsequent Swamp Fight in present-day Westport in 1637, many members of the tribe were killed by English settlers, and women and children were either absorbed by other tribes, indentured or sold into slavery.”
The program then details the securement of their land in Trumbull.
“Members of the Paugussett moved down to the South End of Bridgeport and bought land, keeping their traditions alive and helping to found the settlement of Little Liberia, a community of free people of color including those with Black and Indigenous heritage from several nations, in the 1820s-1850s. Industrialization displaced that community, and the tribal leader, William Sherman, purchased the lot in Trumbull that is now the quarter-acre reservation.”
Lawrence, the historian for the event, detailed the colonization of the Native people at the hands of the Europeans. She describes how John Winthrop, a European colonialist, reported back to England on their colonization efforts of Native people and their lands. Winthrop wrote, “For the Natives, they are all near dead of smallpox, so the lord hathe cleared our title to what we possess.”
Indigenous populations had lost roughly 90% of their population by the end of the 17th century.
Lawrence then explains the principle of “res nullius,” the ideology that colonists utilized in order to claim Indigenous lands. It stated that any land that was not claimed by or occupied by another state or entity could be claimed by colonists. Translated from Latin, res nullius means nobody’s thing or possession.
Lawrence explains the town of Fairfield’s creation and its connection to colonization.
“Roger Ludlowe, the ‘so-called’ founder of Fairfield led the charge in declaring war on the Pequot Tribe. Fairfield was founded as a direct result of this conflict, claiming the land for themselves as ‘spoils of war.’ At the end of the war, 200 Paugussett and Pequot people were sold into slavery and war,” she said.
Moreover, Lawrence explains the speculation that the town of Fairfield got its name from the ‘fairfields’ that the Paugessetts lived upon.
Piper’s Early Life and Adulthood
Since a very young age, Piper has been looked to as the one who would fulfill the role of a clan leader for the Paugussett tribe. At just ten years old she knew how to write a check, cook, shop, coupon, take care of babies and more.
Piper explained that after the men realized that the women were the backbone of the tribe as they would “carry the history, the knowledge, the secrets, etc.,” they started doing “Clan Mothers” —a role that Piper currently serves.
Her responsibilities consist of getting the last vote, providing signatures, answering questions, supplying counseling and more. “It’s a lot, but I wouldn’t trade it for the world,” she said.
Piper shares those same experiences in her recent publication, “Red Road: Traditional Voice of Afro-Indigenous American,” which she describes as a “mixture of anything and everything.” The book includes mentions of spirituality and culture appropriation, how Native Americans attain their medicine bundle, leadership, council, the moon cycle and sage and growing up as an Afro-Indigenous American in the tribe.
What Does It Mean to Be Federally Recognized?
Throughout the 1980s into today, The Golden Hill Paugussett Nation has applied several times for deferral recognition but has been denied every time.
Even though the Paugussett were recognized by the state of Connecticut throughout the 1600s-1900s—about a century before the United States was founded—and their presence was noted through military records, tribal overseer documents, customs records, account books and legal proceedings, the Bureau of Indian Affairs has not granted them federal recognition.
Huber describes that this is largely because “the Bureau of Indian Affairs looks at the tribe’s records, which consist of the records of shoddy consensus takers and corrupt white tribal overseers.”
Additionally, Piper spoke on current U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal’s time as Connecticut’s Attorney General, in which he also denied the Paugussett Tribes application for federal recognition.
“I still have a letter my dad left for me,” Piper explained. The note, which is addressed to Blumenthal, asks for help when they were fighting for their land and the reservation in the early 1990s. “He said no and he denied the tribe and family.”
Piper then touched upon an article published by the CT Mirror in 2014 which calls attention to the Malloy administration and his time as state governor in which he proposed a law that states that if an Indian tribe applied for federal recognition once, they could no longer apply again once denied. Shoran claims, “We’re fighting it right now—to get it removed.”
However, at one point Piper asserts “Paugussett Nation was federally recognized, but it has since been taken away.” She shared, “We were told ‘you don’t meet the criteria’ but we met it all. No matter what they asked for, we provided it, so [the government] ran out of things to ask for.”
Without recognition, the tribe has no legal identity. “You have to stay living on the land so that they [the government] don’t take it. You need a permit to carry a feather. We are no longer allowed to do dances or ceremonies. We have to send in a yearly, detailed report,” Piper explained. “We used not to be able to practice our language … it comes with a number of things.”
Most notably, their lack of recognition led people to hear the name Pequot more often, as seen in the Pequot Library, Pequot Yacht Club and Pequot Wine and Spirit. However, this tribe never occupied this land—the name is only here because of the Pequot War.
“Land dispossession and all the violence it involves are not isolated historical events, they are the central drivers of how we live today, who we live near, and whose histories and presents and futures we acknowledge, and who we get to see,” said Huber.
Huber urged audience members to use the Land Acknowledgement to tell people that “The Paugussett people never left, they’re still here and they’re an active part of our community.”
How Can We Support Indigenous People?
While Piper recognizes that Indigenous people are gathering more attention now, it seems like a trend. “Why didn’t it start a long time ago?” she asked.
Cultural appropriation is still an active problem for their community, in addition to non-responsive politicians. “There are so many changes that need to come about and I hope one day there are changes.”
She notes that many schools and individuals bring awareness to Native American stories through social media, which is an effective way to enact improvement. Another more powerful action, however, would be writing letters to politicians in Connecticut or even in Washington, D.C.
Events open to the public also allow people to come and experience lives they wouldn’t normally hear about. “We keep letting people know that we are still here and letting people know whose land it is,” Piper said, “because most people don’t know.”
Additionally, “Fairfield has begun to move forward on other initiatives to create a deeper engagement with the original Indigenous inhabitants, including a commitment to concrete and ongoing relationship with and support of the Golden Hill Paugussett Nation, including its quest to gain federal recognition,” writes the event program.
Huber added, “If you’re going to remember anything from this panel, remember that the seizure of land is an active force in our lives today and that we are on the land of the Golden Hill Paugussett Nation and we are part of a very large and old story that we can help rewrite.”