||Grassroots movement: "We're fed
|Pequot Village Exhibit. A family
scene in the half-acre,
walk-through diorama depicting 16th century Native life. Photo:
Steve Dunwell, Photography, Inc., MPMRC
The story of Connecticut Indians is the story of America's original
inhabitants, and these days, of new found Indian power. Long before
white clapboard houses, steepled churches, and busy seaports defined
Connecticut, small tribes with names like Pequot, Paugussett, Mohegan,
and Schaghticoke hunted and traded in the pine forests and salt
marshes of the Northeast. Then, European colonizers arrived, took
their land, shoved them onto reservations, and virtually wiped them
Almost, but not quite. Today Connecticut's Indians are again a
force to be reckoned with, and non-Indians are again opposing them.
A grassroots movement has taken root across Connecticut to roll
back Indian sovereignty, power, and specifically, the right of tribes
to build and operate casinos. Today Connecticut, the nation's third
smallest state, is home to two of the world's largest casinos: the
Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods of the Mashatuncket Pequots. Now, like
a latter-day gold rush, the race is on for more. Attracted by the
prospect of huge fortunes, at least five of the state's other tribes
want their own casinos, which has galvanized casino opponents like
Jeff Benedict. The boyish looking Benedict made opposition to Indian
casinos the centerpiece of an unsuccessful run for Congress last
fall. Now, as head of the Connecticut Alliance Against Casino Expansion,
he portrays this effort as a grassroots David fighting the Goliath
of Indian casino power.
"This is a contest between the will of the people and the
power of big money," proclaims Benedict, who adds, "We
are fed up and we're not going to put up with anymore." They
are stirring words, but putting the brakes on the race for more
casinos is a challenge. The huge amounts of money involved, especially
in Connecticut, will make it difficult to stuff the casino gambling
genie back in its bottle.
Money and Cultural Renaissance
Foxwoods, Gary Thibeault
There is a high-stakes debate among casino
owners and community opposition groups over
the impact American Indian casinos have on
states and towns.
The Harvard Project on American Indian
Economic Development found that in most
cases, Indian casinos in rural areas have
substantial beneficial economic and social
impact on the surrounding communities. However,
the study also found that Indian casinos
in urban areas could end up helping tribes
at the expense of off-reservation businesses.
Socioeconomic Impacts of American Indian
Gaming on Non-Indian Communities
Critic groups say even in rural Connecticut,
the casinos have hurt towns and communities.
Citizens Against Casinos
The Mashantucket Pequots have built the largest gambling facility
in the world, dwarfing anything in Las Vegas or Atlantic City: four
cavernous casinos with 13,000 slot machines; and according to the
tribe's brochure, 320,000 square feet of gambling space, which is
roughly the size of 30 football fields. Ten years ago, this part
of Connecticut was known for quiet towns and villages, half-way
between New York and Boston. But it was a casino developer's dream,
according to Robert DeSalvo, Foxwoods' Vice President of Marketing.
DeSalvo, a non-Indian with an Atlantic City background, says more
than 27 million people above the age of 21 live within a 200 mile
radius of Foxwood, which gives the casino a huge population to draw
"You couldn't pick it much better than this," he says.
And the numbers explain why. Forty-thousand people flock to the
acres of slot machines, roulette tables, and blackjack games every
day, and their money pours into Foxwoods like water shot from a
fire-hose; $125,000 dollars an hour; $3 million a day; $1.5 billion
a year. This is huge wealth for a tiny tribe that had virtually
disappeared until just a couple of decades ago.
Michael Thomas, the tribal Chairman of the Mashantucket Pequots,
regards the huge and sudden wealth of this tribe as just recompense
for centuries of mistreatment.
The gambling fortune means jobs, housing, education, and generous
life-long stipends for all tribal members.
"For us the wealth is not an end," says. "It's
a means to an end."
The casino fortune pays for the sprawling Pequot Museum, which
tells the story of a once prosperous tribe and its fateful collision
with Europeans. At the center of the museum is a detailed, life-sized
recreation of a 16th century Pequot settlement. To the sounds of
gurgling streams and singing birds, visitors stroll beneath a lush,
green canopy of trees, past life-sized wax figures in traditional
Indian costumes; it's a vision of a pre-colonial Eden - a world
of wigwams and open fires; hunting and basket-weaving. Just a short
walk takes you from the 16th century to the billion-dollar a year
casino of the modern Pequot -- Las Vegas with an Indian accent:
there's a huge crystal statue of a brave aiming an arrow skyward
-- above the plastic trees; there are non-Indian croupiers and cocktail
waitresses in stylized Indian outfits.
It's difficult to resist the question, what does all this have
to do with reclaiming a lost culture? It's a question that tribal
spokesman Cedric Woods has heard many times and is getting tired
of answering. Woods says the Pequot's huge wealth conflicts with
the image that mainstream America expects of Native Americans, which
is that they are poor, powerless and stoic, accepting their centuries
of mistreatment as just part of being Indian. But the truth, declares
Woods, is that "native people weren't poor and impoverished
until they were colonized."
Local Opposition: Jurisdiction is the Problem
|Mashantucket Pequot Museum & Research Center
at night. Photo: Jeff Goldberg, Esto, MPMRC
|Sculpture at Foxwoods, (Artist:Bruce LaFountain)
Just a few miles from Foxwoods is the village of North Stonington,
a small collection of wood-framed colonial houses with a mill pond
in the village center. It is one of three towns that border the
Pequot reservations, and for the past decade, it has been ground-zero
in the local fight against Foxwoods and casino expansion in Connecticut.
Since the casino opened in 1993, Nicholas Mullane, the town's first
selectman, has watched the flow of cars and busses clog the winding,
two-lane roads; he has complained bitterly that more police, emergency
services, and road maintenance cost North Stonington an extra $600,000
a year, but because the casino is on a reservation, it pays no property
taxes to the town.
Mullane has a notebook 10 inches thick, stuffed with newspaper
stories, editorials, and studies about the impact of the casinos
on his town and the state, which he eagerly shares with a visitor.
They chronicle everything from the inconvenience of increased traffic
to alarming tales of bankruptcy, prostitution, suicides, and murder
- all because of the casino, according to Mullane. "They call
it a resort and casino," Mullane says with a sneer. "But
it's a gambling hall and a bar."
The Pequots argue that their wealth benefits the entire region:
they say the casino pumps tens of millions of dollars a year into
the economy and employees 11,000 non-Indians. And while Indian ventures
are tax-free, the Pequots and the Mohegans, who run Connecticut's
other casino, signed a deal with the state to hand over a quarter
of their slot winnings, which adds up to a quarter of a billion
dollars a year. This is true, but the funds are distributed across
all of the state's cities and towns, leaving the three towns that
border the Pequot reservation complaining that they are inadequately
compensated for bearing the brunt of the impact.
To date, there is little independent, empirical research on the
impact of Indian casinos on surrounding communities. A Harvard University
study concluded that tribal casinos generally benefit surrounding
communities because most of them are located in poor, rural areas.
But the study also noted that in more developed locations - like
the Northeast - tribal casinos potentially prosper at the expense
of off-reservation businesses. Opponents like Jeff Benedict say
casinos only suck up disposable income - money that would otherwise
be supporting movie theatres, shops, restaurants, all of which would
pay taxes to Connecticut. "Money for casinos does not grow
on trees," says Benedict. "It comes from people's pockets
and it is not coming back out."
Behind the growing opposition to tribal casinos in Connecticut
is fear on the part of many citizens that they're losing control
of their communities. As a federally recognized tribe, the Pequot
reservation is regarded as a sovereign entity, exempt from local
property taxes, state and local zoning rules or environmental laws.
The tribe can also buy up land and add it to their reservation,
which is what they've been doing -- all around the home of Sharon
Wadecki, who lives in the neighboring town of Ledyard. Wadecki says
she is concerned about jurisdiction. For example, when she has a
problem with one of her Pequot neighbor's dogs, who does she call?
Her local dog warden is powerless to do anything if the dog wanders
back on to Pequot land. "For me jurisdiction has always been
a problem," says Wadecki.
|Mike Thomas, current tribal Chairman of the
Wadecki is also concerned about the future. Because the reservation
is beyond the reach of local and state zoning ordinances and environmental
laws, the tribe could in theory swallow up Wadecki's world. "I
could have a Ferris wheel next to me," says Wadecki with alarm.
"They could build a toxic dump and no one could say anything
In fact, the tribe has no plans for a toxic dump, though it is
committed to expanding its reservation and to further enlarging
its casino and resort amenities. And why shouldn't it? After all,
any American corporation worth its salt would take advantage of
available loopholes and regulations to maximize its bottom line.
Even Sharon Wadecki admits that if she were a Pequot tribal member
she would probably take advantage of the same laws. "But that's
what needs to be changed," she says. "The laws are wrong."
A point hammered home in the Pequot museum is that the tribe's
wealth and power are not the result of "special privileges,"
but instead of the restoration of its sovereign status under federal
law. Tribal Chairman Michael Thomas is dismissive of local residents
who he says believed "the Indian problem had been solved."
Thomas says he's committed to better relations with his non-Indian
neighbors. But he says they must accept the tribe's right to exist
and to prosper. And Thomas believes that people who are resistant
to change are never going to accept what the Pequots have done,
and what they have the right to do. "We represent the most
feared change," says Thomas, "change that they can't control
through their normal political process."
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