Who won the Pequot War?
Four hundred years ago the Mashantucket Pequots were part of a mighty
tribe of 6,000 members who dominated what is today southeastern
Connecticut, until smallpox and war decimated them. By 1760 there
were 140 Pequots left; the 1910 census counted just 66 on what remained
of the Mashantucket reservation. Eventually, most of the tribe's
few descendents drifted away, and by 1972 there was just one person
left, Elizabeth George. When she died the following year, there
The Mashantucket Pequot Museum tells the story of the tribe's
resurrection, of how Skip Hayward, one of Elizabeth George's grandchildren,
encouraged his far-flung cousins to return to the reservation and
start new lives as an Indian tribe 30 years ago. Charlene Jones
is a great grand-daughter of Elizabeth George and now a tribal council
It was Hayward who led the scrappy descendants of Ms. George to
a successful land claim against the state of Connecticut for federal
recognition as a sovereign Indian nation, then to a bingo hall,
and eventually to a casino that made the Mashantucket Pequots the
richest tribe in the country.
So again, who won the Pequot war?
A Debate about Tribal Legitimacy
The Making of the America's most powerful
Indian tribe, and the World's Largest Casino - by Jeff Benedict.
It's a remarkable story, but it's a story that Jeff Benedict, the
state's leading casino opponent, says must be re-examined. In his
book, "Without Reservation," Benedict alleges the current
Mashantucket Pequots are not a real tribe, and should not have been
recognized by Congress. His research of local census and genealogy
records lead to his most stunning charge: that Elizabeth George,
the tenacious protector of the Pequot's historic legacy, was not
Pequot at all. Benedict claims her lineage leads to the Narragansetts
of Rhode Island, not to the Connecticut Pequots. Benedict says this
is an important point because these days federal recognition leads
to enormous political power and wealth. "It ought to be reserved
for tribes who deserve it," he says.
Not surprisingly the Mashantucket Pequots vehemently dismiss Benedict's
charge. "A pile of crap," is how Skip Hayward characterized
it to the CBS program 60 Minutes. The current Tribal Chairman, Michael
Thomas, calls Benedict's work anti-Indian and "sensationalist."
And Tom Tureen, the attorney who guided the Pequots from near-extinction
to the holy grail of federal recognition, says Benedict is simply
wrong because his research was incomplete. Tureen says Benedict
traces the mother's side of the family to the Narragansett's, but
ignores the father's side of the family which is linked to the Mashantucket
|Mike Thomas, current tribal chairman
of the Mashantucket Pequots. (Photo: Foxwoods)
"It's kind of genealogy 101," says Tureen.
For his part, Jeff Benedict says the father's link to the Pequots
is debatable and tenuous at best.
The debate about blood is no small matter because as much as this
is a story about Native American rights, money, and politics, it's
also about race; how American society defines race and how it responds
to its history of racial injustice. That being said, however, the
Mashantucket Pequots say Indian blood - or how much Indian blood
- is not the issue. Tribal spokesman Cedric Woods argues that the
federal government never signed treaties with races of people; they
singed treaties with polities that exercise jurisdiction over certain
"And when you think about it," says Woods, "how
much American blood do you have?" In fact, many tribes require
members to have a certain percentage of Indian blood, known as a
blood quantum. But today, the Pequot tribe does not require its
members to have any specific amount of Pequot blood, though they
must demonstrate lineal descent from the 1910 tribal census. But
it raises the question: at what point do centuries of ethnic mixing
mean that Indians stop being Indians?
Bureau of Indian Affairs is the government
department charged with determining the
legitimacy of tribal claims. The bureau
also looks out for Indian interests, and
here critics say the agency has a built-in
conflict of interest. On one hand, they
say, the BIA determines which tribes are
legitimate, on the other, they coach the
tribes how to have their legitimacy recognized.
Bureau of Indian Affairs
Jeff Benedict says that even if he were to concede the argument
about genealogy, that would not make the Pequots a legitimate tribe.
The most glaring problem, he contends, is that the tribe failed
to satisfy a central requirement of the federal recognition process.
Specifically, it did not demonstrate that it had existed as a cohesive
entity from its first point of contact with the Europeans to the
present. "They had a reservation with zero people living on
it," says Benedict. "I think that's where there claim
breaks down the most."
Most tribes seeking federal recognition go through the Bureau
of Indian Affairs - with strict requirements about genealogy and
tribal continuity. But a few tribes, including this one, took a
different route, and won recognition from Congress. In 1983, before
Indian gambling was even on the map, Connecticut and Congress wanted
to resolve the tribe's land-claim against local property owners.
So Congress unanimously passed a law to settle the claim and recognize
the Pequots. Benedict says lawmakers overlooked questions about
the tribe's legitimacy and should investigate them now. Tribal lawyer
Tom Tureen disagrees, and says the tribe was splintered and scattered
due to brutal, past policies, and that Congress was right to help
it reassemble - even if that provided the tribe with a chance to
become rich and powerful.
"If tribes had been dealt with fairly [and] if the law had
been obeyed," argues Tureen, "tribes would be rich and
The debate over the tribe's legitimacy has only hardened the attitudes
of its opponents. Local residents, like Mack Turner, a carpenter
and local selectman from North Stonington, lives just a few miles
from the Foxwoods Casino in the middle of North Stonington, where
he still keeps sheep. Mack has seen his quiet community irrevocably
altered since the opening of the Foxwoods casino more than 10 years
ago; he is outraged that a group of people with a claim of fractional
Indian heritage, who had never lived together as a tribe, are accorded
the rights and privileges of a sovereign entity. "To suggest
that these individuals," complains Turner, "and some very
distant relatives have a government to government relationship with
the federal government that supercedes my rights is maddening."
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