WATERBURY, Conn. — He has been disparaged as a document-hunting hit man, available for hire to snuff out the historical claims of Native American tribes.
James P. Lynch says that’s just part of doing business as a self-employed “ethno-historian” who investigates the ancestry of contemporary Indian tribes, often with multimillion dollar casino proposals in the balance.
The polarizing researcher, often criticized by academics, has developed a reputation over 20 years as the go-to consultant for those seeking to debunk the historical claims of tribes, specialists say.
Lynch recently jumped into a dispute between Massachusetts tribes, by helping the Pocasset Band of Pokanoket Indians of Fall River, combat efforts by the Mashpee Wampanoag to build a casino in Taunton, which the Pocasset say is their historic territory.
The Mashpee, in response, have blasted Lynch as a “hired gun” with questionable credentials.
For Lynch, such a fierce counterattack is a good sign.
“When they start attacking you personally, you know your research has hit home,” said Lynch, 66, who works from his house in Waterbury, about 30 miles southwest of Hartford.
One room of his basement is filled with dozens of his meticulously crafted models of military ships and planes, a lifelong hobby. The adjoining room is stuffed with thousands of records on Native American tribes.
For thrills, Lynch roots around old libraries and archives. “That moment of enlightenment when you learn something new is like a siren’s song,” he said.
He began researching tribal histories seriously in the early 1990s, beginning with the Golden Hill Paugussett in Connecticut. The tribe’s wide-ranging land claims at the time threatened the home of Lynch’s mother-in-law. The tribe later blamed Lynch’s “inappropriate research” for the 1996 rejection of its petition for federal acknowledgment, according to a Globe report in 2000. His work on the Golden Hill Paugussett led to more assignments.
“My work has always been word-of-mouth,” he said. “I never really put myself out there.”
He has often been hired by law firms representing municipalities opposing tribal recognition, which is often a first step toward a casino.
Lynch did not come to historical research along the traditional academic career path. He served in the US Navy after high school, from 1964 to 1973, and then studied sociology and anthropology at Southern Connecticut State University. He holds a master’s degree in anthropology and ethnohistory from Wesleyan University and participated in a University of Connecticut doctoral program in anthropology and history, but did not finish.
He worked for heating equipment companies before becoming a full-time consultant and document researcher around 1998. He founded his current firm, Historical Consulting and Research Services, in 2001.
His work often provokes angry responses. A commentary Lynch published in March, for instance, which questioned the historical claims of the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians, in California, brought a stinging retort from an anthropology professor who accused Lynch of distortions.
James Axtell, a historian and researcher retired from the College of William and Mary, who knows of Lynch, said the rise of tribal casinos has created a new breed of researchers-for-hire. “Lots of people are getting paid to do this stuff,” he said. “You expect them to find what you want. These are not historical researchers hired to find what the truth is.”
A federal judge made a similar point about Lynch in 2009, in a ruling in a federal lawsuit over tax-free tribal cigarette sales in New York. Though Lynch was deemed qualified to testify in the case as an expert witness, the judge noted Lynch’s testimony in 10 cases involving federal recognition by Indian tribes.
“Mr. Lynch found adversely to the tribe’s federal recognition in nine matters in which he was retained by clients opposing tribal recognition,” the judge wrote. “In the one matter in which Mr. Lynch found in favor of tribal recognition, he was retained by a client that supported tribal recognition.”
Lynch said he never guarantees his clients the results they want. “One thing I make clear: You get what the facts dictate,” he insisted.
In fact, he said, the most satisfying day of his career came when he discovered a document in Connecticut that appeared to bolster the case for federal recognition by the Eastern Pequot. “I must admit the temptation to suppress it,” said Lynch, who was working at the time for opponents of tribal recognition. But he said he placed the document in the official record of the case. “That, to me, was a seminal moment that defined whether I was a professional or a client’s hit man.”
The town of Halifax hired Lynch to investigate the Mashpee, who in 2007 had announced plans to build a casino in Middleborough, near Halifax. Lynch produced a report arguing that the Mashpee lacked historical connection to the land and therefore should not be permitted to establish a reservation or a casino at that location.
John Bruno, former Halifax selectman, said the board did not direct Lynch toward any predetermined conclusion, though local opposition to a casino was well known. He thought Lynch did a good job with the research. “He does a lot of work with primary source documents,” said Bruno. “He seemed to know what he was talking about.”
In the current dispute between Massachusetts tribes, Lynch wrote that the Mashpee are not linked historically to the land in Taunton where the tribe has proposed a casino.
“Historically, the lands in question were those belonging to the historic Pokanoket tribe,” with which the Cape Cod-based Mashpee were not associated, he wrote. He accuses the Mashpee of seeking to “distort the historical realities of Southeastern Massachusetts” for the sake of gambling profits.
Lynch said he agreed to help the Pocasset for free because the tribe was “on the verge of getting screwed.” He said he may be paid “down the road” if the tribe builds a successful economic development project, be it a casino or something else.
The Mashpee, in response, say Lynch is the one warping history.
“Unfortunately, Mr. Lynch has gained a reputation throughout the country as a hired gun who will come up with reasons to deny Indian tribes their sovereign right to land as long as the price is right,” Cedric Cromwell, the Mashpee Wampanoag chairman, said in a statement.
“Throughout our quest for federal recognition, and now an initial reservation, those with a financial motivation to deny us our rights have paid so-called experts to refute our history and our identity as Mashpee Wampanoag people. Every step of the way, the evidence has supported our proud history, and we are confident that the outcome will be the same in this case.”
The US Department of the Interior must sort out the dueling portraits of Mashpee Wampanoag history in rendering a decision on whether to take the Taunton land into trust for the Mashpee, a necessary step before the tribe may open a casino.
The Pocasset have pushed since August for the state gambling commission to review Lynch’s research. The commission has the authority to seek bids for a commercial casino in Southeastern Massachusetts if it believes no tribes will be able to build a casino in the region.
Stephen Crosby, the commission’s chairman, is aware of Lynch’s research, but said it is too soon to consider whether the Mashpee will be successful.
In the meantime, Lynch hopes his latest work will provoke the Mashpee to produce fresh research in an attempt to refute him.
“If you’ve got cards,” he dared the tribe, “it’s time to put them on the table.”