The story, by reporter Michael Melia, begins “For two decades, the Mashantucket Pequots lived like Indian gambling royalty. Luxury cars abounded on their tiny, gated reservation of colonial and ranch-style homes in the woods of southeastern Connecticut.”
The tribe’s Foxwoods enterprise allowed tribal members to live without concern for money; generating per capita payments that at one time exceeded $100,000 annually for each adult.
Now with Foxwoods struggling with debt exceeding $2 billion, an amount that compares to the annual budgets of several federal Indian programs, the payments to members were stopped, and the impact on the tribal community is being felt by tribal members and local merchants. According the AP report, the tribe has opened a food pantry for needy families, counselors are providing guidance on how to pursue jobs, and members have been left wondering if this is the end of what once seemed an endless stream of cash and a bright future for them and their children for generations into the future.
Several years, ago, one of the officers of the National Indian Gaming Association was quoted as having compared Indian casinos with the bison of old, the “new Indian buffalo,” he called it. I felt that such a metaphor was an insult to the animal that provided life for generations of indigenous peoples of the continent. But perhaps that person was right in one respect; when the buffalo were taken from us by the massive strategic slaughter that took place at the end of the 19th Century, we were a defeated people. Similarly, the turnoff of the spigot of wealth to the Mashantucket people is devastating them, apparently from the actions the tribe is taking to help deal with community trauma.
True, the newfound wealth for many tribes has improved the lives of their members, and the economies of entire areas, and has provided for the preservation and presentation of their culture and traditions. To those small tribes that lived so long in limbo, abandoned and left unrecognized by the federal government, ignored by their kinsmen in larger tribes, and struggling to keep their traditional cultures alive, Casino wealth brought a world change. The Mashantucket Pequot were among these.
But it seems that the new wealth brings yet another form of dependency, replacing the dependency on federal largesse that has eroded families and entire societies among some tribal communities.
New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, a noted authority on the Middle East, tells that members of the suicide squads that carried out the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center included a number of young Saudis. Saudi citizens are well taken care of, without poverty among them, because of the great wealth that pours into their country from oil exports. This is felt among their youth, who really don’t have much purpose in life or society because most of the physical work, from major contracts to household chores, are done by imported labor, who are allowed to stay in the country for only two years. The youth become idlers, whose mischief includes daring raids for al Qaeda.
Perhaps there are correlative lessons between the Saudi situation and that of tribes that come into such great wealth in gaming.
The AP story of Mashantucket Pequot tells that “Tribal leaders have discouraged members from talking with outsiders. A reporter who made a recent visit was stopped by five tribal police officers, including the chief, and escorted off the reservation. The police handed out notices later that day instructing people not to speak with reporters.”
Certainly that is their right in their sovereign state, although it does appear almost Soviet-like in its paranoiac response. However, perhaps the tribe will assess the entire situation and allow its own story to be shared with other tribes who are in similar situations of wealth, and who might face the same fate in the future. The lessons—less so the financial as the societal and sociological ones—should not be lost on other tribes.
Charles “Chuck” Trimble was born and raised on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. He was principal founder of the American Indian Press Association in 1969, and served as executive director of the National Congress of American Indians from 1972 to 1978. He is retired and lives in Omaha, Nebraska. His website is IktomisWeb.com.