Mohegan Tribe sees new life as casino endures

Building one of the world’s largest casinos comes with some advantages.

During the last decade, the Mohegan Tribe, which for several centuries before hasn’t been considered wealthy, had owned a business worth billions of dollars.

„I have seen a lot of change,“ said Ralph Sturges, Mohegan chief for life. „A lot of people have been given money, medical help and a lot of other things they never had in their lives. Most of them are better off today than they were in the history of their lives.“

The tribe has generated money from gaming, the entertainment side of Mohegan Sun and several outside ventures, such as the purchase of a horsetrack in Pennsylvania and partnerships with tribes that want to build casinos in Wisconsin and Washington state.

Those ventures have helped build Fort Hill, a Mohegan retirement community and state-of-the-art facilities for learning and cultural work on the reservation, and have provided top-notch medical care and educational opportunities.

„We’ve got economic advantages now that were beyond our wildest dreams,“ said John Henry Clark, chairman of the tribe’s Council of Elders. „We have health-care benefits that are phenomenal. I don’t know if everyone realizes how important that is.“

Loretta Roberge, 75, moved into Fort Hill several years ago and said the facility is important, especially for those who might not have other resources they need for their care.

„Some people need the care that is given up here,“ Roberge said. „It’s a wonderful, wonderful program.“

Melissa Tantaquidgeon Zobel, tribal historian and director of the Department of Cultural and Community Programs, said there wasn’t opposition within the tribe to build the casino because members had eliminated non-feasible developments for the property.

Zobel said Gladys Tantaquidgeon, the tribe’s medicine woman, made jokes about having a casino, but fell in love with the building when the tribe made sure it reflected the culture and history of the Mohegans.

The tribe has grown from about 1,200 members in 1996 to more than 1,700 today. Tribal members receive a monthly stipend, that is taxed, from casino revenues and get discounts at the casino.

With the accumulated wealth, the tribe has been able to expand its economic reach.

The tribe closed its membership rolls and isn’t allowing new members unless they are born from a tribal member. The rationale is if a person has lived with the knowledge of being Mohegan, he or she should already have participated in the community.

Mark Brown, tribal councilor and former tribal chairman, said he remembers when tribal meetings drew only 15 to 20 members and there were discussions of whether there was enough money to buy basic office supplies.

That isn’t the case anymore. Brown said the casino’s success and growth have given the tribe financial stability into the foreseeable future.

„If this kind of pace keeps up, I can’t imagine it,“ Brown said.