More Than Money
Issue #24

What Are We Teaching Our Children?

Table of Contents

“BRINGING THE PEOPLE HOME AN ELDER'S VISION”

by Steve Chase

Passing on values from one generation to another can be a task for whole communities, not just immediate families. Few stories illustrate this as dramatically as the rebirth of the Mashantucket Pequot Indian Nation, now one of the wealthiest communities in the country.

This story begins with Anne and Elizabeth George, two elderly women with a dream. Living together in an old trailer home in Connecticut during the 1960's on the remaining 200 acres of the Mashantucket Pequot land, these women sought to rekindle the dying Pequot culture. Elizabeth George urged her far-flung nieces, nephews, and grandchildren to come home and "hold on to the land." By the 1970's, a handful of these young people began to answer her call. Elizabeth George's grandson Skip Hayward, now the Tribal Chair, remembers this time fondly. "People had the sense when they came here that there was something happening, that something was alive here, and there was something spiritual happening."

Still, life on the land was hard. The new residents sold cord wood, maple syrup, and garden vegetables. They started a swine project and ultimately opened a hydroponic greenhouse that produced up to ten thousand heads of lettuce a week. Some projects failed, some broke even or made a little money, but as noted by Loretta Libby, a daughter of Elizabeth George, "Back then things just were not working out."

Yet, the new residents completed fifteen new homes by September 1981, the first houses built on the land in over one hundred years. By 1983, the tribe had won federal recognition, regained much of its lost land base through a successful lawsuit, and received $300,000 for tribal economic development from the federal government. With that money, the tribe bought a local pizza joint that served as a meeting place and a steady source of cash. The struggle to become economically strong enough to support the return of large numbers of Pequots remained unresolved, however. Thus began a three-year, tribal debate over the ethics of opening a high stakes bingo hall. "We were very concerned about different kinds of things that it might bring here," remembers tribal member Theresa Hayward Bell, including "crime, prostitution, and all the bad things that you hear that go along with gaming even today." Finally, the tribal council agreed that the financial opportunity the bingo hall offered was too promising to pass up. The trick was to run it in a way that strengthened the community, rather than weakened it.

Rather than just distributing the profits from the bingo hall to individuals, Skip Hayward said the tribe decided "to instill a sense of tribalness, of working together." This meant that the tribe used its common wealth to build a tribal infrastructure, which included a centralized water system, more roads, more homes, a community center, a tribal newspaper, educational scholarships, and the opportunity for all tribal members to have a job. The result was that a large new wave of tribal members began returning home to join the community. Denise Porter, a tribal member who moved to Mashantucket in the late 1980's, expressed the views of the many returnees: "I felt that this was part of me. This was part of my children; this was part of my mother. And this was a part of my grandmother. I thought, this is good because I'm back home and I'm working for my own people." The tribe soon became financially successful beyond its wildest dreams. It now owns the Foxwoods Resort Casino, a pharmaceutical company, a shipbuilding company, and several inns and hotels. The economic future of the next generation of Pequots is assured. According to teenager Tabitha Cooper, the tribal elders told her, "Just pursue your education, and you'll have a career already set up for you." Tabitha intends to follow their advice. "I'm going straight through college to get every kind of degree I can. I want to be a lawyer."

Still, some tribal members have feared that this sudden new wealth could turn the Pequots away from their cultural heritage as a people. Would the new wealth end up corrupting or uplifting the members of the tribe? Holding the bulk of their wealth in common was one way to maintain their cultural values, but the tribal elders ultimately felt the need to do more. In an effort to fulfill Anne and Elizabeth George's dream, the tribal council decided in 1994 to designate a large portion of the Casino monies toward building a state-of-the-art Native American museum. Theresa Hayward Bell, a granddaughter of Elizabeth George's, was chosen to direct this project.

To date, the Tribe has spent $195 million to make the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center a reality. In August of 1998, it opened its doors to the public. This year, Bell expects over 350,000 people to visit the museum, which includes several permanent exhibits, a gallery, classrooms, an auditorium, a library, reading rooms, a research department, and conservation laboratories. Her hope is for the museum to become a major resource for scholars and the general public to learn more about North American Native cultures over the last 10,000 years. "This is the culmination of a dream conceived by my grandmother over 30 years ago," she notes, "to tell the largely unknown story of the Pequots and to preserve our culture and history." It is also a way, says Bell, "to tell our story to our own young people."

In the Pequots' case, successful financial development has served as a thread that has helped retie a scattered people's connection to its land, heritage, and culture. The final plaque on the museum walls, left for visitors to read as they complete their journey through the museum's exhibits, sums up the beliefs of the many generations of Pequots who have worked so hard to pass on the values of their elders: "We feel our shared history creates a special bond, a common identity that keeps us strong."

For more information on the Mashantucket Pequot Museum & Research Center , call 860-396-6835.  


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