A tribe rediscovers its heritage


Community: Once nearly extinct, Connecticut's Mashantucket Pequot Indians have built a thriving community fueled by a highly profitable gambling casino and resort.

August 05, 1999|By Rachel V. Katz | Rachel V. Katz,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

MASHANTUCKET, Conn. -- Just three decades ago, Herman Melville's premature obituary of the Pequots seemed close to fulfillment. Over three centuries, the Mashantucket Pequot reservation had been whittled away to 213 acres. By the 1960s, only two older women remained on the land, living in a shack without running water or electricity.

How times have changed.

Federal recognition and settlement of land claims have boosted the reservation to 1,250 acres. It is home to more than 600 tribal members, mostly living in decent housing. Drawn together from far corners of the country, the descendants of the Pequot nation have returned to reclaim their heritage and stake out a better future, boosted by the success of the tribe's Foxwoods Resort and Casino.

"It's been a unique experiment in a sense, bringing back the tribe, making it work, building a community," says Bruce A. Kirchner, Foxwoods' senior vice president of administration, who has worked for the tribe since it opened its bingo hall in 1986.

Kirchner recalls childhood visits to his grandmother, Alice Langevin Brend, and her half-sister, Elizabeth George, on the reservation. "We had to go to a long dirt road. It was just one dirt road, off the hill, with one house, with the two women living there." When he graduated from college, his grandmother suggested that he volunteer for the tribe, and he joined the small but growing number of people returning to the land.

The result was a renewed destiny, as the tribe reversed a centuries-long diaspora and reinvigorated its local economy. The blue and white tower of Foxwoods, which boasts two hotels and the casino, rises over the Connecticut woods, attracting people from across the state and beyond to its gaming tables and jing-jangling slot machines. Last August's opening of the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center was a highlight in the tribe's quest to reclaim its heritage.

After the end of the Pequot War in 1638, in which more than 600 were massacred by settlers and opposition tribes, the remnants of the tribe were dispersed among other tribes. In 1666, several hundred survivors were allotted a 3,000-acre reservation by the state. This land was gradually carved up and sold off, and by the 1940s George, recognized as the tribal leader, was fighting with the state over who would pick up the cost of repairing the single standing house on the reservation.

Encouraged by George's call, "Hold on to the land," tribal members began returning in the 1970s. They drew up a constitution and elected George's grandson, Richard "Skip" Haywood, as president. With limited success, members tried pig farming, a hydroponic greenhouse and a maple syrup business.

In 1976, the tribe filed claim to 700 acres auctioned -- illegally, they alleged -- by the state in 1856. The bitter court battle, which frayed the tempers of local property owners, lasted seven years.

Federal recognition and a settlement of the land claims came in 1983. The tribe also received $900,000, earmarked for land acquisition and economic development. In 1986, the high-stakes bingo hall opened, with Foxwoods following in 1992. Slot machines came in 1993 and in June returned $59.2 million in earnings to the casino.

If the casino is the enterprise's heart, the museum is its soul. Its design makes the most of the natural surroundings, bordering on the Cedar Swamp that has always been the core of the tribe's land. Traditional designs, such as the image of a wampum belt, are woven into the architecture. White and purple shell shards glisten in the lobby floor.

The museum features portrayals of Pequot life, starting with an ice age caribou hunt on a glacier 11,000 years ago. A replica of a 16th-century village shows full-size figures in daily activities: Women scrape kernels of corn off the cob and mash them into meal; nearby, a young couple builds a home. A stockaded village reflects life after the arrival of the Europeans, who brought trinkets such as metal pots -- and also ravaging diseases. The aftermath of the Pequot War and the development of the reservation are documented through movies and interactive displays. A photo gallery of today's tribal members links past, present and future.

Kelly Reising feels most at home in the photo gallery: "It's a nice feeling," she says. Reising, 29, was working as a pharmacy clerk in California before moving to the reservation eight years ago. Of the photos of other tribal members, she says, "That's really who people are and where they are today."

Reising's mother, one of George's granddaughters, grew up in poverty and left the reservation when she married. "When my mother was a child, you didn't want to be an Indian," she says. Not that her mother passed on a sense of shame, but she said little about their heritage. "I always knew I was Native American," Reising says. "I always wrote in that I was Native American on applications. But [the identification] wasn't too strong."

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