Casino wealth finances museum of Indian culture Pequot nation rises from near oblivion, builds lavish facility for history


MASHANTUCKET, Conn. -- A scent machine spews eau de smoky campfire, and an escalator ride through a fiberglass glacier includes geologic crunching and a 30-degree drop in temperature. But in this museum built with a blank check, the final display is a rickety yellow trailer with a shower head out back and a dented kettle on the stove.

It was in just such trailers that the remnants of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation spent a dozen hungry years repopulating a nearly abandoned Indian reservation -- only to become millionaires with an Oz-like casino so tall it twinkles with red lights to ward off airplanes.

That teal-and-plum castle, Foxwoods Resort Casino, is now Connecticut's largest individual source of revenue and allows the Pequots to live like sheiks, with tribal housing and free college tuition for all. The casino also supplied $193 million -- roughly four months' take from the slot machines -- for the museum, opening tomorrow, which celebrates the tribe's resurrection.

The Pequots, once denied loans even for saltbox houses, are rich. Now, they want respect.

"We are not just doing this to pay back what happened to native people," said Theresa Hayward Bell, the museum's executive director, who once lived in one of those trailers. "This is something that native people should always have been able to do."

And, oh, what $193 million can do. The nation's museum professionals are watching with awe -- and envy.

Furs and replicas of tools, bones and a soapstone bowl are put out where visitors can touch them; when they're worn, they'll just be replaced. Baseboards are slate, inlaid with Indian basket designs. Display cases are solid elm and ash instead of the museum norm, laminated plywood.

In a 22,000-square-foot Indian village nearby, real water rushes in the riverbed, and a computer linked to 110 speakers constantly remixes the sounds of dogs, geese and crickets. The 50 trees have 5 million green polyester leaves, hand-painted with yellow, ivory and bronze. To re-create the perfect American chestnut tree, artisans traveled to Wisconsin to make a latex mold of a 23-footer.

Outside, a 185-foot tower of stone and glass soon will give visitors a pilot's eye view of the cedar swamp that sprouted the largest casino in the Western Hemisphere.

W. Richard West, the director of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian, said the Pequots' museum was tremendous poetic justice for "a people and a culture that had been left for dead."

"The Pequots were, historically, one of the most potent political and military forces on the East Coast," he said. "Now, they've come full circle. No one can say the glory of native culture is a past phenomenon."

Despite the expensive technology, Pequot officials are eager to portray the museum as a home for serious scholarship, and a place to dispel stereotypes about Indians from European histories and Hollywood portrayals.

Indeed, the museum was dreamed of long before the tribe went into the gaming business. The collection has its roots in the archaeology, genealogy, oral history and other information gathered during the process of gaining sovereign status from the federal government, which was completed in 1983. The first casino opened in 1992.

The museum's 150,000-book research library emphasizes the 20th century American Indian experience. "We want to provide the tools to allow people to write the books, make the videos and write the poems that will introduce people to the truth about Native Americans," said Cheryl Metoyer, the museum's director of information resources.

The museum also is a chance for the Pequots to ease tensions with their neighbors, who are resisting the tribe's effort to annex new land for the reservation. Several local officials, used to battling the tribe in court and at zoning hearings, said they were pleasantly surprised to receive invitations to today's ribbon-cutting ceremony for the museum.

Pub Date: 8/10/98

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