On the day of the opening of the National Museum of the American Indian in
Washington, D.C., I attended a press conference of the National Indian
From my seat at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., I could see
media people, tribal officials and staff I recognized from the National
Indian Gaming Association. There were others whom I thought probably were
members of the association’s staff.
It was then that I realized my knowledge of Indian tribes needed
reorienting. The influence of Indian gaming probably is the reason I am
seeing a new kind of Indian. For example, the tribal chairman from the
Mashantucket Pequot, whom I saw at the press conference, looked black
rather than Native American. His aide did, too.
I realize that for the past 20 or so years, I haven’t gotten out much past
Canada and the states surrounding North Dakota. The Indian people in this
area usually are Dakota, Lakota, Nakota, Chippewa or from the Three
Affiliated Tribes – Arikara, Mandan and Hidatsa. And I absolutely know
there are Native Americans who are mixed blood; I have blond grandchildren,
for example. But these two Pequot men certainly turned my head when they
walked into the room. Since that press conference, I have paid more
attention to Indian gaming issues.
Have these newly recognized tribes arisen solely for federal programs and
the gaming business?
During the press conference, the current chairman of the National Indian
Gaming Association, Ernest Stevens Jr., applauded the success of the gaming
tribes. Indian gaming has grown to a $16.7 billion industry and created
500,000 jobs nationwide, he said. Tribes have at their fingertips one of
the greatest economic development tools in 200 years.
This success is a godsend for many tribes.
Six speakers from successful casinos were chosen to talk about the
prosperity of their gaming endeavors. Thomas, the Mashantucket Pequot
chairman, was one of the speakers. The Pequot run the very successful
Foxwoods Resort Casino in Connecticut.
My question is, who are the Mashantucket Pequot? Were they really a tribe?
I was unable to reach chairman Thomas by phone. Arthur Henic, the tribe’s
public relations person, answered my questions this way: The tribe was
federally recognized in October 1983 during President Reagan’s
administration. Members who have lineage to the 1900 and 1910 census are
considered part of the tribe, he said.
In the past few weeks, I’ve read a book titled, “Without Reservation: How a controversial Indian tribe rose to power and built the world’s largest casino,” by Jeff Benedict. It’s about the Mashantucket Pequot.
It reads like a good novel. Benedict has an “inside their heads” narrative
that I was a little put off by. But I was shocked, too, at his recounting
of the bloody history of what happened to many Indians on the East Coast.
It made me think how lucky some of the Plains tribes are. We weren’t faced
with as much outside influence.
Here is what Benedict’s book says. After seeing the stark poverty and abuse
in Indian country in South Dakota, a lawyer named Tom Tureen left that
state and took a job with Indian Legal Services in Calais, Maine. There he
worked with more than 1,500 Passamaquoddy, “who wallowed in extreme poverty
on a vast wilderness reservation,” as the book describes.
Tureen wanted to help the Passamaquoddy become federally recognized so
they’d be eligible for federal programs. In his research, he found that
other coastal tribes might be eligible for federal recognition, too, thanks
to the 1790 Nonintercourse Act.
Tureen’s people contacted all tribes that seemed to fit the category of a
tribe. In his search for other tribes, Elizabeth George of the Mashantucket
Pequot was identified. She lived on 214 acres with a wooden sign that read,
“Western Pequot Indian Reservation, established 1667.”
She defended her land in Ledyard, Conn., for years from outsiders and with
On first glance and because George lived on land identified by the state as
a reservation, it was assumed she represented a tribe.
Enter Richard “Skip” Hayward, her grandson. At the time, neither Hayward
nor any of George’s other relatives had an interest in the reservation, and
all of them identified themselves as white, according to Benedict’s book.
But when they were approached about the lawsuit for land and federal
programs, Hayward, who was elected chief, pulled together his family and
anyone else who could tie themselves to the Mashantucket Pequot, the book
Over the next 30 years, the reservation grew to 2,000 acres and 600 people
claiming to be Pequot. Their Foxwoods casino grosses more than $1 billion a
There is a murmuring in Indian country about tribes who, it seems, have
jumped on the bandwagon because federal benefits and, more recently, casino
So it twisted my gut a little when I saw Thomas boasting about their Indian
gaming successes. In some parts of Indian country, a word used to describe
these tribes is “opportunists,” not Indian people trying to regain a
culture and language. That word crosses my mind on occasion, too. And I
still have questions about the federal government and Congress’ role in
granting federal recognition.