The Great Spirit in a New Era: Gaming on Pequot Tribal Land

Indian gaming has often been discussed by the press in ways that promote misinformation, negative stereotypes, and public opposition. The 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA), however, was passed to empower tribes to enter into gaming as a means of economic development and a method of promoting strong tribal governments. To date, gaming has been one of the few opportunities for Native Americans to achieve economic stability and prosperity, enabling them to exercise greater sovereignty and independence.

We decided to visit the Mashan-tucket Pequot Nation because we felt that the input and feedback of those directly involved and affected by gaming was vital and necessary to understanding how and if this economic strategy has actually been beneficial. Our objective was to focus on the changes which have occurred as a result of gaming and to gather new insight into the issues and ideas currently being expressed in connection with the gaming industry. We visited the Mashantucket Pequot reservation three separate times from November 1994 to January 1995. The interviewees greeted us with tremendous enthusiasm and energy. Throughout our interviews, common themes prevailed which stressed the importance of rebuilding and reinvesting into the community and instilling in their children a sense of pride. The success and achievements they have attained and are still striving for were primarily created with the future of the children in mind.

For the last two centuries they have been written about in history books as an extinct tribe; the fact that the Mashantucket Pequots are still around to tell their story is truly amazing. Their suffering and decimation can be traced back to the Pequot War of 1637, when their numbers were drastically cut from 15,000 peoples to just 2,500. Their land base of 2,500 acres was slashed to just 214 acres in 1856. Since that time, the Pequots have had to face tremendous hardships in terms of poverty, prejudice, poor housing, and increased dwindling of their population. With only two elderly half-sisters remaining on the reservation in 1970, it appeared that the Pequots' chances for survival as a tribe had come to an end. Outside pressure was mounting from the state of Connecticut to take the reservation land and use it for a state park. In 1974, however, under the leadership of Skip Hayward, the Pequots slowly rebuilt their nation. They reorganized their tribal government and drafted a tribal constitution. In 1983, the Pequots gained federal recognition and were able to buy back the land that was unjustly taken from them. After many economic enterprises were tried, gaming finally became the means by which the Pequots could rebuild their economy, improve their quality of life, and rediscover their cultural heritage.

The following interviews were conducted separately with each tribal member at different locations on the reservation. Similar questions were asked in all of these interviews; therefore, more than one answer for each question may appear.

Chris Pearson, Associate Director Trainee, Public Relations: "I would like to begin by thanking you folks for your interest in our people. We are very grateful that anyone is interested at all in our people. For three and a half centuries nobody gave a flip about the Mashantucket Pequot people. My grandmother, my mother, my aunts and uncles grew up on this reservation, lived on this reservation, were sustained on this reservation, with nobody caring whether or not they had enough food, enough clothing, or were warm or starving to death or educated. So to have anyone care about us in any way shape or form now, is very appreciated and we are very grateful for the opportunity to tell our story and to have our culture and the resources and the availability to be a nation again at our disposal. We are very grateful."

Cultural Survival: How do you feel about Indian Gaming?

Wayne Reels, Cultural Director: "People say `Well gaming, Indians gaming, ah, now they're gaming!' If you look back in history, we've been gambling. It was a form of something to do. The forms of gambling have evolved even since the early days of Las Vegas, so why can't we evolve? Our culture is evolving. That's cultural survival. As long as you know who you are, you kind of survive, even a little bit of you."

Jo-Ann Isaac, Pequot Council Member: "Gaming came into play because we could not borrow money from the bank. And people would not take an interest in believing in us. To build an economic base for us to be able to live and work in our own community was a very hard struggle, for a very long time. And many years ago, they [the local people in the community] used to have gambling and whiskey. They would get the Indians drunk and they would tip them over in the canoes and drown them over here in Long Pond. So it is really ironic that three hundred years later, the only way that we could do our economics and bring our people back to build houses, to create jobs, pay for our own education, and better our health care needs was to do a bingo operation. That led to a casino, o.k.? It is ironic that instead of tipping us out in the canoes now and killing us, the towns are trying to kill our growth. And the taxes and the new infringements that come with "Our Discovery and Our Hard Work" - ironically enough - are coming from gaming money."

Cultural Survival: What impact has the Foxwoods casino had on the Pequot Nation?

Wayne Reels: "The casino is good, first of all, because without the casino we would not be able to buy back the land. This tribe was almost extinct at one time due to the fact that people were not here and did not know who they are. People are still finding out they are Pequot today and coming back to the reservation. My job is to identify with them and let them know what `Pequot' is. It is not a casino. A casino is just there to help us get back what we lost land-wise, culturally. When the casino goes down, all these people that came here are going to stay around even if they have to live on welfare. We are here, we are back, we're proud. A lot of things have been restored here that come through the casino. So, the casino has been a major point, and it is how you use it. It could be bad or it could be good... it could be perfect, but nothing is perfect and you've got to keep the struggle. That is the struggle that we have been going through. We never had anything given to us, not the casino. They never said, `Hey, here is you casino.'"

Laura Porter, Museum Director:

"Gambling has made it possible for Pequots to come back home, have a job, education, a home, and the ability to better yourself through boarding schools and college funds. There are training programs, educational programs, and tutors for the children."

Cultural Survival: How has the Pequot community accepted or adjusted to the success of the Foxwoods casino?

Chris Pearson: "The whole thing is pretty amazing. We go from 214 acres and two people living here... to the economic prosperity of a fortune 500 company. And we have these new people coming back that don't know each other-and in some cases have never seen or heard of each other before-and are thrust into this pressure cooker environment of the federal government leaning on us, the state, the local town, the pressure of running a business, the pressure of growth. People are showing up and there is no house for them. I still don't have a tribal house. There are human services, health problems, financial problems, and the needs are just awesome. Trying to put in the infrastructure so we can have the housing, the fire and the EMS to keep this whole thing from literally exploding or imploding from all the pressure from the rest of the world. Because you are in a country, a domestic sovereign nation."

Cultural Survival: How has the casino affected the surrounding community?

Joey Carter, Director, Public Relations: "Well, when you can create 10,000 jobs you can help any community out, especially when you only have 305 people in your tribe. That's a lot of non native Americans that you're putting to work...and that's why we can donate ten million dollars to the Smithsonian, two million dollars to the Special Olympics. Everybody says, `Why? We felt that was a statement because they are looked at as second class citizens and it's important to us because we know how they feel and we know the position that they're in. And with the Smithsonian it's important. That's telling people who we are. Not just Mashantucket, all Native Americans. And to be able to go in, do what we're doing in our museum, and build a 130 million dollar museum, that's a lot of money to make a statement. If that's what it takes to educate, to make the former presidents, the former congressmen, the selectmen to be able to deal with Native American tribes and deal with them as a sovereign nation, then it's going to be better for our children. And that's important because you always want the next generation to not go through some of the shortcomings and that's what were trying to establish now. And people realize that we do makes a lot of money, but we give a donation every single day of the week."

Cultural Survival: How many members are there currently?

Derrin Carter, Tribal Managers Office: "320. Half are children, more than half. About 160-170 are under the age if 21."

Chris Pearson: "I want my children to know it has not always been Foxwoods-Pavarotti performing in the multi-purpose room. And I don't want them to grow up knowing that. I mean that is part of it, but only a small part. And it is the least important part. The most important part is the culture, the history, the traditions, and what our people endured. Because that is where they are going to get the strength to know who they are and where they came from and that is where they are going to learn to appreciate the value and power and the strength that will come from knowing who they are and where they came from. I want them to walk in the foot steps of their ancestors because my people had very large moccasins. And it is going to be the objective of every tribal member to work very diligently to try to fill their shoes and live up to heritage, the legacy they left us with."

Cultural Survival: What is the present housing situation?

Crystal Whipple, Administrative Assistant, Tribal Manager's Office:

"Tribes have been able to purchase a lot of homes within our settlement area and bring a lot of tribal members who lived in different states back, so that they are able to live on the reservation or at least around it, close to home. You fill out an application, put it into housing, and you go on a waiting list. And as the houses become available - and depending upon your income - you get into these houses."

Ruth Thomas, Housing Department: "Within another month most of the people on the waiting list who have a need for housing will be in a home, whether it be in a `mutual help' or the alternative program that we run here in housing, where the tribe has bought houses off of the reservation. If you've been to other places in Indian Country, they say that we have some of the finest homes right here on this reservation."

Cultural Survival: Do the tribal families get money per month from the Casino's profits - per capita distribution?

Crystal Whipple: "No per capita distribution. Instead we have an incentive plan here where depending upon your level of education, your age, and what committees you sit on for the tribe, you get points awarded to you based on these things. That is how we receive our money. It is an incentive for tribal members to go back to school. So the higher your education is, the more points you would get. The points means money twice a year, 80% in October and then 20% in January."

Cultural Survival: Is health care provided for tribal members?

Derrin Carter: "Health care is provided to the tribal members, all of its employees, and their families."

Bill Millar, CEO, Pequot Pharmaceutical: "The four main things we were concerned about: access, quality, freedom of choice, and cost containment. So the result of that was to form a `Preferred Provider Option' as part of the medical plan provided here and now we have a large Preferred Provider Organization that consists in the medical side of probably 1000 physicians, covering 3 states, and 40 medical centers. We cover a lot more lives in the pharmacy than we do in the tribe. The tribe has roughly 40,000 lives when you figure the number of employees and their dependents. We have about a million lives we cover in our pharmacy. We have medical, dental, optometry, pharmacy coverage and on the medical side we put a big emphasis on prevention."

Cultural Survival: Do you see casino gambling as a means to achieve self-determination and sovereignty?

Chris Pearson: "Nobody expected the explosive, cataclysmic success and growth that we experienced. Nobody expected it. The positive natural by-product of that level of success equated into opportunity for us to once again reunite our nation. This is a nation. The Mashantucket Pequot nation has the same government-to-government relationship with very few changes, that foreign sovereign nations have like Germany, France, Spain, Canada, Mexico, and Mashantucket Pequot nation. We have a government-to-government relationship and I think that is where most of the misconceptions happen from non-native people. They think that we are just other citizens of America. We are not. We have dual citizenship."

Cultural Survival: What message would you like to give to the readers of Cultural Survival Quarterly?

Chris Pearson: "Get to know us and you will be happy for us. If you know what we have been through and you know who we are, you will be happy for us, genuinely happy for us. Because in the American success stories, everyone loves an underdog. And everybody likes to see somebody who is willing to take a risk and roll up their sleeves and work hard and earn an opportunity for success; to appreciate that success... I would like for people to consider this analogy, that if your family was attacked. Let's just say some of the Jews who were attacked by Hitler and were gassed and killed and brutalized and murdered and the horror that those people lived through... If the descendants of the Jews, the family members of the Jews who died at Auschwitz and went through the horrible atrocities, were able to win a lawsuit with the German government and be compensated for that loss, who could put a price tag on that type of suffering? Well if you look at what native people have been through and if you look at what the Mashantucket people have been through, it is no different or no less severe than what happened to the Jews in Nazi Germany. I don't think anyone in their right mind with an objective attitude on the subject could say, `No, they're not entitled to something.' We have earned even the right to receive these compensatory damages but yet people aren't even willing to acknowledge that we have the right to what we've earned. We have taken the risk. He bank in the United States of America, in all of the Americas, would lend us a dime.

So, another thing that I'd like your readers to know is thank you for your interest. Thank you for reading this article. Thank you for even caring about who we are and what we are. And thank you for an open mind. Just view the evidence and let the evidence stand on its own and then you make up your own mind. I have a very high confidence level that you'll be very glad for our people and you'll be very glad for our people and you'll want to know more about us and all of Indian Country."

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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