Native Americans tell their ancient stories Pequots: A casino and resort have enabled the tribe to open a museum that takes visitors back in time.

Destination : Connecticut


Behind the tall log palisade, the long-house wigwam awaits its visitors. Its walls are sheets of tulip-tree bark lashed to a framework of white cedar. Bench seating, made of small logs tied to knee-high supports, lines the perimeter. On the floor, the fire holes are heaps of gray ash, and the smell of smoke is in the air.

The long house is a place for storytelling and an introduction to the half-acre Indian village in the Mashantucket Pequot Museum & Research Center, which opened this month just north of Mystic, Conn. It's a walk-through environment filled with wigwams, life-sized figures of people of various shapes, ages and activities, taxidermized animals, trees and shrubs. Nothing is roped off; no explanatory text is posted; there is little to intrude on the illusion of real place, real time - a Native American community in a wooded, coastal region of what would later be called Connecticut on an August afternoon circa 1550.

But it's an exhibit after all - indoors, two stories down and very much in the present. Mashantucket is a reservation, home not just to the tribe - 550 people who can trace their lineage to a Pequot ancestor listed on the census of 1900 or 1910, according to spokesman David Holahan - but to the tribe's famously successful Foxwoods Resort and Casino.

A long-held dream of the Pequots, the museum and research center is designed "to tell the tribe's story and serve as an educational and cultural resource for other tribes, scholars, students and the general public," its director, Theresa Hayward Bell, has written.

Its displays illustrate the history of the land as well, from the last ice age to the present: Entry to the exhibits, in fact, is through a simulation of the glacier that covered this part of the continent some 18,000 years ago. Through special effects, visitors hear the creaking of the ice (recorded in the Arctic and Antarctic) and the whistling of the wind, feel the cold air, see water dripping.

Influential people

Major players in the area before settlers arrived, the Pequots were quickly reduced in number by exposure to European disease and then by military defeat in the Pequot War of 1636-1638. About 600 of them were killed in a 1637 attack on their fort at Mystic by settlers allied with other tribes. Most of the survivors were dispersed and enslaved; the remainder were allowed to return to a portion of their traditional land, Mashantucket, in 1666.

Over the centuries, their numbers continued to dwindle as economic necessity forced them off the reservation or the call of a religious fellowship drew them away; assimilation moved them into the general population; and fear of prejudice kept them quiet about their ancestry.

In the 1970s, they reappeared, drawn back to Mashantucket by a young visionary named Richard "Skip" Hayward. In 1983, the Mashantucket Pequots gained federal recognition; three years later, they opened a high-stakes bingo parlor; and in 1992, they opened Foxwoods.

In southeastern Connecticut, the Pequots are once again a powerhouse, buying up land and businesses, employing thousands, drawing tourists, boosting the state treasury. Their casino is described as "the most profitable in the Western Hemisphere." Their 312-room Great Cedar Tower hotel is linked to a brand-new, 800-room Grand Pequot Tower. In addition to the casino, which includes a no-smoking area and learners' tables, the hotels have restaurants, a 1,500-seat theater for headline entertainers, a state-of-the-art exercise room and a retail shopping strip done up like a turn-of-the century Main Street. There's a 280-room motel on the reservation as well, from which buses shuttle patrons to the hotels.

It is a big house that gambling has built, and it's not the only one in the area. Ten miles away, on a reservation of their own, the Mohegans - rivals in Colonial days - opened the Mohegan Sun casino in 1996; they plan a hotel for the year 2000.

A look around

Visitors can begin their tour of this $193 million tribally owned institution from atop a 185-foot-tall observation tower that provides an overview of the reservation. Or, start closer to ground, in the glass-and-steel "gathering space," and go from there directly to the exhibits and then on to the children's and research libraries, the restaurant, the theaters or the museum.

The major exhibits follow chronology: From the glacier, visitors move toward a huge, hairy mastodon stomping through a barren snowscape of 11,000 years ago and a giant beaver. Then, there's a circle, 50 feet in diameter, of caribou hunters (and taxidermized caribou) in a diorama based not only on archaeological evidence found in the remains of a hunting camp of about the same period on the reservation but also on the lore of Canadian tribes that still hunt caribou. Smaller scenes showing native adaptations to the changing weather and environment are set up behind glass.

"The land is important to the tribe," says Elizabeth Theobald,

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