Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Greed in a Pequot Village

A week ago our Land Rover needed to have some service done in Connecticut. Rather than go shopping at one of the nearby malls while we waited, Laurel and I decided to do something we have wanted to do for some time – visit the Mashantucket Pequot Museum.

This museum would not exist but for America’s compulsion for gambling, and the related billion dollar bounty provided by the ten million annual visitors to the world’s largest casino, Foxwoods, owned and operated by the Mashantucket Pequots. It is a miracle that any of the Mashantucket Pequots survived to this day, after near annihilation in the 1637 Pequot War, enduring smallpox and other diseases from the Europeans, land theft, being sold into slavery, broken treaties, and being deprived of recognition that they even exist as a tribe. There is certainly some justice in their profiting from the weaknesses of their antagonists.

Herman Melville made reference to their decimation in Moby Dick (Chapter 16, The Ship), when Ishmael first comments on the name of Captain Ahab’s ship: “Pequod, you will no doubt remember, was the name of a celebrated tribe of Massachusetts Indians, now extinct as the ancient Medes.” Most people at the time, including Melville, thought the Pequots were gone.

In 1636, 10,000 to 15,000 Pequot lived along the estuaries of the Thames, Mystic, and Pawcatuck Rivers on the Connecticut coast. They controlled the fur trade (European men loved their beaver hats) because they controlled the rivers, and because they were proficient at making wampum, shell beads, the common currency of the time. By 1974, only 44 tribal members remained.

In 1982, Congress passed the Pequot Indian Claims Settlement Act, providing money to buy land to replace what had been taken, and granting them federal recognition. President Reagan vetoed the bill, but it passed again a year later, and became law in 1983. For more than 300 years, the European invaders and state and federal governments made consistent and organized attempts to exterminate the Pequot. That's history, but I didn't learn it in school.

On this dreamy summer day in Connecticut, driving to Ledyard was uneventful, but presented us with a stark transition. One hour earlier we had been in Farmington Valley with its upscale malls, fine restaurants, spas, and luxury homes. Now we were driving through sparsely populated, old rural communities with a church and For Sale signs.

Once on reservation land, we were amazed at the size and design of the casinos, Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun, just down the road, which protrudes from the land like a huge, dark futuristic skyscraper. Past the fantastic casinos, the three story, 300,000 square foot Pequot museum reflects the tribe’s interest in creating an architectural form that merges with the surrounding landscape, and represents their history and culture.

We entered the museum at The Gathering Space, a 75 foot high glass hall, designed as offset semi-circles, referring to the palisades of the Pequot fort at Mystic in the 1630’s. Paying for admission, we were promptly advised that being over 55 and AAA members got us a double discount. We saved $8. My thought was that most folks get fleeced at the casino before visiting the museum, so saving a few of their remaining clams is a nice touch.

Adjacent to The Gathering Space is The Tower, a 210 foot high observation tower with an elevator and stairs. We took the elevator. Familiar low hills covered with dense green trees were punctuated by a sprawling blue-roofed casino complex, as unpretentious as a giant plastic pink flamingo.

I have gambled twice in casinos; in 1981 with some Japanese friends in a pachinko parlor in Osaka where, after an initial investment of 100 yen and flipping hundreds of silver balls for twenty minutes, I won a carton of cigarettes and a box of ball-point pens. The other time was on the CAT ferry from Yarmouth, Nova Scotia to Portland, Maine in 2003. The ferry’s casino had 71 slot machines. By comparison, Foxwoods is reported to have over 7000 slot machines. No waiting at Foxwoods.

Talking with the ship’s casino manager, he explained how the slot machines worked and the strategy involved. He said you put in your money, push a button, and within a few moments you find out if you won anything. There is no strategy, except to keep putting in money until you win. Always open to new experiences, I put in five dollars, and watched the flashing lights and images for what seemed like too brief a time for my reasonable investment. I lost, and I left. I have spent twenty-five minutes of my life in casinos. Perhaps I lack imagination, but I think my gene for greed is impaired.

In the Pequot Museum, a time line of galleries presents their long history on this land, and the disturbing effects of the European invasion on their way of life. The most unique and impressive exhibit in the museum was a full-size replica of a 17th century Pequot village, complete with realistic humans, animals, sound effects, water, and smoke.

Before entering the village, each patron is given a listening device and simple instructions on its use. Exploring the village is self-guided, and the pathways invite wandering. The recorded explanations are told in the present tense, providing an illusion of being transported back in time and space. The contemporary world fades away. It was a rewarding experience, even for a skeptic. The village reminded me of what has been lost, and of how grateful I am that the people who lived here so well are still willing to help us find our way.

Ledyard presents some strange and wonderful convergences. In the 1970's the Pequots had lettuce farms, but they had a hard time getting their produce to market. They ran a successful bingo game on the reservation to supplement the tribal income. Now the Mashantucket Pequots, nearly destroyed by the greed of white settlers, own one of the most profitable gambling enterprises in the world.

Greed brought the Europeans here, and justified their aggression. The Pequot tribe, forced from its lands, and coerced to sell off the rest, are now buying back land and developing businesses. Some people are concerned with the negative impact of the casinos on their communities, and that they may be forced to sell their homes. Others worry that Native Americans may reclaim their land. This story is far from over.

In the 1987 film Wall Street, Gordon Gekko delivered his famous greed is good speech:

The point is, ladies and gentlemen, that: Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right; greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms, greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge — has marked the upward surge of mankind and greed, you mark my words — will not only save Teldar Paper but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA.

With gambling and greed often comes compulsion and desperation. Greed begets more greed, without a moral compass to guide us (check out http://www.moralcompass.org/). We lost our social moral compass a long time ago. Hidden market forces and corrupt governments feed off our greed and fear of scarcity, shape our cultural assumptions, and force us to cooperate.

The Mashantucket Pequots have a moral compass. The land is not about money, it is alive, teaching us to care for our wonderful support system, to be mindful of ourselves and what is living all around us, and to freely choose altruism and cooperation. I must assume the Pequots know this. It is inherent in their oral traditions. Makes me wonder what might be next for the Pequots.

Walking out of the museum, Laurel and I talked about visiting the casino. We decided against it. The greed would have killed our high.