Banking on Indian identity


Gambling: In Connecticut, a little heritage is parlayed into a multimillion-dollar casino. Or two.

April 18, 2004|By Mike Adams | Mike Adams,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

LEBANON, Conn. - In an annual spring rite, Frank Cook dresses in Indian garb, with a turkey-feather headdress, and dances to the boom of a drum at his tribe's annual powwow.

Cook, 60, traces his heritage to Uncas, the legendary chief who broke away from the Pequots in the early 1600s and formed the Mohegan tribe. But due to another tribal schism almost four centuries later, the retired electrical engineer is not legally recognized as an Indian nor does he earn a penny from the Mohegan Sun, one of the world's largest and most profitable hotel-casinos, with annual profits exceeding $1 billion.

Shimmering like a huge mirror on the banks of the Thames River, about 15 miles south of the powwow site, the casino is owned by the rival Mohegan Tribe of Connecticut.

In 1994, the federal government declared that the casino Mohegans, who now have 1,600 members on their rolls, were the true tribe. That gave them the quasi-sovereign status necessary to conduct gambling on tribal land.

Cook's group, known as the Native American Mohegans, with 600 members, was left out in the cold. He blames "power and greed" for the exclusion.

Since 1988, when Congress first enacted legislation to regulate Indian casinos, tribal gambling has grown into a $15 billion-a-year industry, with 330 facilities in 29 states. The exploding profits have caused high-stakes fights over tribal membership across the country.

In California, with more than 50 tribal casinos, more than 1,000 people in 14 tribes are locked in disputes over tribal enrollment. In Minnesota, members of the Shakopee Mdewakanton Dakota are fighting over stipends that pay individual tribal members about $1 million annually from the tribe's Mystic Lake casino.

The casino Mohegans were savvy and fortunate enough to gain the backing of wealthy non-Indian investors - foremost Solomon Kerzner, a South African gambling czar, whose business group spent $9 million on lobbyists and political donations to secure all-important tribal recognition in 1994 from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The casino opened in 1996.

Mark Brown, the chairman of the casino Mohegans, says federal recognition "proves who we are and where we came from. ... The genealogy is a no-brainer. And if it's not there, it's not there - time to move on."

"We see them as cousins," Cook says of the casino Mohegans. "But their leadership does not acknowledge us."

Nowhere is the boom in Indian casinos more evident than in southeast Connecticut, between New York and Boston.

About 10 miles south of the Mohegan Sun casino in Uncasville - named for the tribe's founding chief, whose identity was appropriated by the misleadingly titled novel, The Last of the Mohicans - the Grand Pequot Tower soars 534 feet above the opulent Foxwoods hotel and casino complex in Ledyard. Owned by the Mashantucket Pequot tribe, Foxwoods brings in an estimated $1.3 billion annually and is widely acknowledged as the world's most profitable gambling operation.

The Mashantuckets got federal recognition in 1983, when President Ronald Reagan signed a bill settling a land claim filed by the tribe in 1976.

Last year, Connecticut received nearly $400 million through revenue-sharing agreements that give the state 25 percent of the gross slot machine revenue from the casinos in return for permitting both tribes to operate slot machines. The casinos are credited with creating more than 20,000 jobs.

Yet, the state is also home to one of the nation's strongest anti-casino movements, led by attorney general Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat who was elected to a fourth term in 2002, and author Jeff Benedict.

Both are concerned because tribal land is exempt from most state and local laws, including land use and environmental regulations. And both are determined to prevent the construction of new casinos by two recently recognized tribes.

In June 2002, the BIA recognized the Eastern Pequot tribe. In January, after more than two decades, it approved the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation. But Blumenthal is appealing the Eastern Pequot decision and plans to go to court over the Schaghticoke, hampering any casino construction for years.

Cook laments that Connecticut's anti-casino movement has scared off potential financial backers for his tribe, who would have to gamble millions of dollars to pay for the Washington lobbyists and genealogical research necessary for the tribe's recognition petition, filed in 2002, to succeed.

Steven L. Austin, a cultural anthropologist and former BIA staffer who helped to evaluate the petition filed by Cook's group, says some members have a legitimate claim to membership in the tribe that owns the Mohegan Sun. Others, including the tribe's leader, Eleanor Fortin, also known as Princess Rippling Waters, are not Indians because they were adopted into the tribe, Austin says.

"Eleanor Fortin ... is no more Indian than I am," says Austin.

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