||Donald Trump's Indians
|Developer Donald Trump - (Photo AP File, 1999)
A modest, wood-framed building just next door to a used car lot
in Groton, Connecticut is the headquarters of the Paucatuck Eastern
Pequots, a tribe of 150 members with a dream of resurrecting a tribal
community and building another casino in Connecticut. This past
summer the dream moved closer to reality when the Bureau of Indian
Affairs recognized the tribe as part of the Historic Eastern Pequots.
It was a stunning victory for Tribal Chairman James Cunha, who began
his tribe's quest for federal recognition in 1989.
"It legitimizes who we are," says Cunha. The decision
means the tribe will be entitled to federal grants to help the tribe
with housing, medical care, and education. It could also bring them
the kind wealth that only a casino can bring.
This Paucatuck Eastern Pequots represent a modern phenomenon in
Indian country: the marriage of tribal interests with powerful non-Indian
casino backers. Chief Cunha is in business with Atlantic City casino
developer Donald Trump, a partnership of almost comic irony; just
a few years ago Trump complained to Congress about unfair competition
from Connecticut's Indians. He told the lawmakers, "they don't
look like Indians to me." But today, they do look like a good
investment, as do dozens of tribal groups across the country, who
are backed by casino developers. Critics say they're exploiting
federal recognition to grab a fast ride to casino wealth. Chief
Cunha responds that the truth is just the opposite.
"Indians go into gaming to get federally recognized,"
That's because successful recognition petitions require thousands
of pages of research and documentation. Cunha says the tribe tried
to do this on its own, but the BIA rejected its first application.
So Trump paid for the lawyers, the genealogists and the lobbyists
to help push the second petition through.
But Chief Cunha says this is about restoration of tribal culture
and sovereignty. He traces his Indian roots to his maternal grandfather,
who he says was part black and part Pequot. He also has Portuguese
and Irish blood, but he says it was that fraction of Native American
blood that defined his family -- in spite of what his high school
teachers said. "They told me the Pequots were extinct,"
recalls Cunha. "I raised my hand and said, I'm a Pequot."
The teacher, thinking she had a trouble maker in her class, threw
the young Mr. Cunha out of her class and sent him home. But the
next day he was back, accompanied by his grandfather, dressed in
full Pequot regalia. Cunha remember how his grandfather stood proudly
in the classroom and challenged the teacher, "Tell me I don't
"That's the kind of role model I had growing up," says
Certainly it is the right of anyone to define who they are. But
in this case at stake are federal benefits, tax shelters -- and
the right to establish sovereign enclaves. This troubles Fergus
Bordewich, who has written extensively about Native Americans and
federal Indian policy. Bordewich believes that in many cases tribal
sovereignty is exploited unfairly to establish special enclaves
If, for example, an individual is 50 percent Irish-American, twenty-five
percent Italian-American, perhaps a fraction German and a fraction
Indian, a person who has lost touch with tribal traditions, how
is he any different from many Americans with equally diverse heritages?
"It's not surprising," says Bordewich, "that many
people find it unfair that groups like these get special privileges."
In his book, "Killing the White Man's Indian," Bordewich
writes of the shameful failure of two centuries of federal Indian
policy -- from outright genocide and exile, to forced assimilation
and bigotry. Since the 1970s, Washington has embraced more enlightened
efforts to strengthen tribal autonomy, which Bordewich applauds.
But he wonders if encouraging a multitude of mini-states is wise.
Societies grow, he argues, when there's a sense of shared responsibility,
interest, and commitment; and when we recognize how much we have
in common. "In many cases," says Bordewich, "tribal
sovereignty is a recipe for separation and segregation."
Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, argues tribal
sovereignty can also be used to erode the public interest. Blumenthal
is challenging in federal court the recognition of the Eastern Pequots,
charging that the tribe failed to demonstrate tribal continuity
through the years. With his square jaw and good looks, Blumenthal
cuts the profile of a latter-day Eliot Ness fighting the proliferation
of casinos across his state.
|Photo: cover "Killing
the White Man's Indian"
In "Killing the White Man's Indian,"
Fergus Bordewich writes:
Success is by no means evenly distributed.
Gambling halls on remote or badly governed reservations
are often as unprofitable and poorly managed as
other tribal enterprises, while casinos fortunate
enough to be situated near large cities have sometimes
reaped astonishing profits. Some tribes have dissipated
their earnings in lavish per capita payments to
tribal members that evoke the squandered oil and
land-sale windfalls of earlier eras.
» Read More at fergusbordewich.com
"What drives the urgency of this are the dollars," says
Blumenthal, who is alarmed by the out-of-state non-Indian casino
backers like Donald Trump investing heavily in the tribal recognition
process. "Now more than ever," he says, "the dollars
make this decision a turning point in tribal-state-federal relationships."
As Indian gambling has boomed, so has the number of groups seeking
federal recognition across the country -- there are now more than
200 -- and so has the influence of money. A report from the General
Accounting Office found the tribal recognition process at the Bureau
of Indian Affairs under-staffed and in disarray - with potential
advantages going to tribes with wealthy backers.
Enough is Enough
Tribal gambling is a $13 billion industry nationwide. In Connecticut
it represents half of the state's $4 billion economy, and Jeff Davis,
a Democratic state representative from the state's rural northeast
corner, says that's enough. Twelve years ago, state politicians
had no idea that they were signing up for two of the world's biggest
casinos. Now they have seen the results, and Davis says it is time
to put the brakes on. "Any more," says Davis, "threatens
the quality of life in Connecticut.
Federal law requires states to allow tribal gambling on reservations
if the states permit the same kind of gambling off the reservations.
Because Connecticut has for years permitted charities and churches
to run occasional Las Vegas night-style fundraisers, Indian tribes
can run casinos. So Davis sponsored a bill, signed into law this
winter that repealed that Las Vegas-nights-charity law. Now, he
says, newly recognized tribes are out of luck.
"I don't think there should be any right for anyone, no matter
what their color or race or ancestry to have a casino," declares
Davis, who adds, "That's a wrong view to have."
Indian backers say the state can't deprive newly recognized tribes
of casinos when it's already given two other tribes seats at the
gaming table. The repeal is bound to end up in court. The Paucatuck
Eastern Pequots, next in line for a casino, has not said yet if
they'll challenge it. But their chief, James Cunha, says opposition
to tribes like his is hypocritical. Cunha argues that as long as
tribes were seeking federal recognition to sell fruits, vegetables,
and Indian trinkets from their trailers, there was no problem. "The
problem," he says, "is that we've become entrepreneurial
and self-sufficient - maybe even better off than the communities
As anti-casino forces mobilize across Connecticut they say their
voices are finally being heard. Jeff Benedict of the Coalition Against
Casino Expansion calls the repeal of the Las Vegas Nights Law a
major victory. And he says a court challenge will lead to a long
overdue re-examination of the limits of tribal sovereignty. "This
is a national issue," says Benedict, "that I would like
to see go to the Supreme Court." Benedict says this debate
is a debate about the relationship between federal, state, and Indian
sovereign rights. "Do states have sovereign rights to dictate
the course of their policy on gambling,?" he asks. "I
think they do. That's what this is all about."
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