Gamble that made tribe millionaires

It is hard to believe the scale of Foxwoods Resort Casino.

By floor space, it is the largest in the world.

Its gaming rooms, hotels, theatres and shopping malls tower over thickly wooded forests in this once sleepy corner of New England.

It is a shining city upon a hill, to which 40,000 people a day flock – from New York, Boston and beyond – to play on more than 7,000 slot machines and gamble at hundreds of tables.

But the house always wins – or almost always – and this is the remarkable story of how one tiny Connecticut tribe, all but extinct, became one of the richest in America. By betting on a swamp…

Cultural genocide

During the so-called Pequot War of 1636-37, the English massacred hundreds of Pequot tribe members and shipped women and children off into slavery in the colonies.

„The Pequots have the grim satisfaction of being the first tribe in east USA to undergo cultural genocide by the English,“ says Dr Kevin McBride, Director of Research at The Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center.

Those who survived did so by taking refuge in a swamp.

By the 1970s Elizabeth George Plouffe was the only person left on the reservation, now reduced to 200 acres.

„My grandmother was a visionary,“ says Theresa Bell. „If she’d not held on and talked her grandchildren into coming back… it would have been turned into a state park.“

Theresa and her brother Skip Hayward were among several grandchildren who answered their grandmother’s call to return to the land.

Theresa now lives in a large, detached house, with a luxury sports car and recreational vehicle in the driveway outside.

But when she and others first came, they lived in trailers and tried to earn a living by raising pigs, harvesting maple syrup and even opening a pizza parlour on the highway.

Remarkable come-back

Skip Hayward realised that the businesses could not support the families on the land, who were struggling to survive.

And then he had an idea, bingo! Literally.

With the help of a campaigning lawyer, Thomas Tureen, he established a bingo hall in 1986.

Two years later, the Indian Regulatory Gaming Act was passed.

It intended to pull Native Americans out of poverty by allowing them to open casinos on their sovereign land, if the state in which they were based also permitted them.

Connecticut did not have casinos and was resolutely against them.

But Thomas Tureen discovered that it did allow so-called „Las Vegas Nights“.

„Someone pointed out that Connecticut allows small-scale gambling for fund raising and someone from the tribe says ‚well what’s stopping us?‘ Well nothing really,“ he said.

And so, with money from Malaysian investors, Foxwoods Resort Casino opened its doors in 1992.

They have not closed ever since. It is even rumoured that they have lost the keys.

The tribe has a system to share the profits among its increasing membership, now up to 900.

No-one will say how much the pay-outs come to but it was said that every member from the age of 18 was guaranteed at least USD 100,000 a year for life.

‚White man’s sin‘

A few tribes – like the Hopi in Arizona – have rejected casinos, often on the basis that it is wrong to profit from weakness, or the „White Man’s Sin“.

But others have been inspired to follow suit, and there are now more than 300 casinos on Indian reservations across the US.

And just five miles away, across the river, stand the gleaming glass towers of the Mohegan Sun, which has become the second largest resort casino in the world.

But while the Mashantucket Pequot are well-off financially, they are poor in other ways.

A wander through the USD 200 million dollar Pequot Museum is revealing.

One room is devoted to creation myths of different tribes, but the Pequot’s is not there.

They have no storytellers left to tell it.

What strikes me most after a few days here is the paradox at the heart of the Pequot’s identity: the tribe is inevitably known for its casino, a controversial, capitalist enterprise.

But it seeks validation by appealing to an authentic, native American-ness that is about nature and spirituality.

The great wealth has caused problems, with some refusing study or work in favour of drugs and fast cars.

There has also been a rush of claims to tribal membership, igniting ongoing arguments over who is, and who is not, a Pequot.

Lost heritage

His fair skin and reddish hair betray more of his Scottish heritage than his native one, but James Walker – whose native name is David Fire Arrow – is doing his best to recover some of the past.

He holds weekly gatherings at his home, teaching children traditional dance, and adults how to make jewellery and weave baskets.

James thinks his ancestors would be happy with the casino. „I really hope they’d be proud of what we’re doing,“ he says.

„This is allowing us to be here as an extended family: we’re all cousins, brothers, and sisters.“

But family tensions inevitably surface, and here they have spilled over into an all-out feud.

The man who largely rebuilt the tribe and the casino, Skip Hayward, was ousted as chairman.

He refused an interview and – depending on who I spoke to – he is either a bitter recluse or a visionary who has moved on to his next project in construction.

His sister, Theresa Bell, has also left the council.

She regrets ever getting into the casino business: „I’d rather have seen the state park and I think my grandmother would have too… the casino can fall into the swamp as far as I’m concerned.“

The tribe clearly faces its challenges. Apart from feuds, there is also the economy, which has reduced profits and forced lay-offs.

But it has not stopped the leadership from looking forward. A USD 700m expansion of Foxwoods has just opened.

The Mashantucket Pequot paid for it, and it is a partnership with Vegas-based MGM Grand.

The tribe is also branching out into other businesses in distant states.

And it is all thanks to a swamp, once a place of refuge from the English, now the aquifer serving a giant casino that is happy to accept English pounds.