Welcome to the Emerald City

Picture this:  a small, typical, rural-for-New England town of about 5,000 people.  Formerly agricultural, now a bedroom community for neighboring town’s industrial companies, the only development consists of two small shopping centers of about five buildings each.  Zoning laws require that each property have two acres on the road, creating the illusion of a woodsy setting in a largely middle-class, white community.  Driving down the road, out of nowhere appears today’s incarnation of the Emerald City, the Foxwoods Resort Casino.

Foxwoods Resort Casino, surrounded by forests

One aspect of American Indian rights legislation that the readings for this week didn’t touch upon that I decided to investigate for my presentation was gaming and the authority of tribes to create gaming establishments for profit on their reservations.  Foxwoods Resort Casino is the ultimate example of these casinos.  Established in 1992, the casino is now one of the largest in the world and includes a hotel, MGM Grand, and a 36-hole, 90-acre golf course.  The conflict between North Stonington and the Mashantucket Pequots derives from tension concerning whether their land use policies and museum conflict with cultural preservation and how those businesses affect the surrounding towns.

Pre-contact, the Mashantuckt Pequots had flourished for hundreds of years in what is now southeastern Connecticut.  They, however, faced near extinction at the hands of English colonists and settlers common to that endured by many other Eastern tribes.  By the 1970s, only twenty to thirty tribal members remained.  With the assistance of the Native American Rights Fund and the Indian Rights Association, they recovered over 1000 acres of their land illegally sold to Connecticut in 1856.  This settlement then allowed the Pequots to seek federal tribal recognition, which was granted in 1983.  Simultaneously, the Tribe reached out to members who had moved away and encouraged them to return. [1]

In 1986, after other economic ventures with varying success, the Tribe opened its bingo hall.  This gambling establishment served as a precursor to the now world famous Foxwoods Resort Casino, which opened its first phase in 1992 and “whose success put an end to generations of economic struggle”.  [2]  The Mashantucket Museum and Research Center opened to the public in August of 1998.

While I was too young to understand the cultural dynamics at play in North Stonington in the early 1990s, my parents tell me that there was a loud outcry against the Pequots and their casino.  Locals didn’t want Foxwoods at the edge of their town.  North Stonington maintained strict zoning requirements that limited business growth to the area around Rt. 2 (the main road through town and the direct path from I-95 to Foxwoods) and had also limited growth to low-impact businesses as they did not have the infrastructure to support anything larger.  They certainly didn’t want the extra traffic streaming through the community, particularly as that road divides the elementary school from the middle and high school.  The police department had only 2 part-time officers while the fire department and EMT service are completely volunteer-run.  Increased accidents have been difficult to handle, to say the least.

North Stonington is tiny and has a strong history of being anti-development.  Residents protested against the traffic and drain on their taxes and expenses.  But – was this the real issue at hand?  Did North Stonington residents not want their quaint community disturbed, or were they actually reacting against the Native influence in the area?  Despite the influence on the town, who are we to say how others use resources and make money?

Aerial view of the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center

Two years ago, I visited the Pequot Museum on a museum studies field trip.  No one we met with knew I was a local, but I distinctly remember one individual discussing how racist and ignorant the surrounding communities were.  I didn’t speak up, but I was appalled – how dare he say that about me?  Did he not understand how the casino had affected me and my town?  I was too old to have gone on field trips to the museum (because it wasn’t open yet), but the North Stonington school system didn’t visit now either.  There was no museum outreach from the Pequots to the neighboring schools – had they ever tried?  How could relations improve if no one was communicating or making an effort?  (A later conversation with my mother assured me that even if the museum had tried, and apparently they had, the school system wouldn’t have been interested anyway – it was too little, too late.)

In terms of land use – who am I to judge how they use their land?  Do I have a right to this opinion?  I might inherently dislike Foxwoods and MGM Grand for environmental reasons, but that doesn’t give me the right to restrict the Mashantucket Pequots from development. [3]  The museum’s website does speak to the 500-acre Cedar Swamp that is “a refuge for wildlife, a place of traditional and spiritual significance to the Pequots, and a unique natural resource that the Pequot tribe will protect for generations to come” – but this land and its sense of tranquility is overshadowed by the looming Emerald City, rampant pollution, and drone of traffic in the background. [4]  They harm their land while claiming they are preserving their culture.

The obvious answer to the “Why?” question is money, for profit.  So the Pequots can remain self-sustaining and survive.  Does this capitalistic venture ever interfere with their tribal beliefs?  Is it even my place to decide that, or am I again imposing my views on another culture?

A section of the museum website called “Tribal Members Reflect on the Dream” lists quotes from tribal members stating how important that land was to the Pequots.  Elizabeth George, a tribal leader, said “Hold on to the land.” [5]  I read this quote as meaning to preserve and protect – but do a casino, golf course, and several hotels adhere to this idea?  Am I imposing my middle-class, white views on another culture and people?

Am I overreacting to the land use issue for personal reasons?  I grew up in North Stonington and attended school there from kindergarten through 12th grade.  A friend and I had explored those woods a year or so before the golf course was built, and we found old foundations and an underground well that I had loved.  So in combination with my interest in local history, I have a sentimental attachment to that area as well.

To be fair, the Pequots haven’t been great neighbors. They never offered to help North Stonington or any of the neighboring towns with the financial costs of growth and disturbance caused directly by Foxwoods.  The recent Lake of Isles golf course does contribute money to the town as one of the largest taxable properties, but does this offset the additional traffic and pollution? Although they hold something like 1/3 of all the wealth in Native American communities, they do little to help other struggling Indian groups.

I have trouble separating all these issues from each other – my desire to be culturally sensitive to a marginalized group, my interest in land preservation and environmentalism, my personal attachment to my yuppie “rural” town and its history.  Is it possible for me to reconcile these ideas?

Through writing this post and conversations I’ve had about this topic, I’ve come to realize that I’m more insensitive to the Pequots than I’d like to admit. I jarred at being labeled racist by the museum professional because I WAS, and it was difficult for me to hear and admit it.  I applied a stereotype of all Native peoples as essentially primitive to the Pequots that didn’t allow them to develop commercially because I didn’t agree with the line of commercial development that they had chosen.  While I strongly dislike the casino, the golf course, and the traffic, and I do believe I would react this way to any sort of imposing economic development in North Stonington, I cannot impose my beliefs over anyone’s elses desire for economic sustainability.

[1] “Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation History.” Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center.  Accessed April 25, 2010.  http://www.pequotmuseum.org/TribalHistory/TribalHistoryOverview/TribalHistoryOverview.htm.

[2] “Mashantucket Pequots Come Home.” Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center.  Accessed April 25, 2010.  http://www.pequotmuseum.org/TribalHistory/TribalHistoryOverview/MashantucketPequotsComeHome.htm

[3] 5/3/2010: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that the Lake of Isles golf course was located on tribal land.  It’s actually part of North Stonington and contributes money as one of the largest taxable properties in town.

[4] “Horizon VIII: The Present.”  Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center.  Accessed April 25, 2010.  http://www.pequotmuseum.org/TheNaturalWorld/MashantucketToday/

[5] “Tribal Members Reflect on the Dream.”  Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center.  Accessed April 25, 2010.  http://www.pequotmuseum.org/TribalHistory/TribalHistoryOverview/TribalMembersReflectontheDream.htm

One thought on “Welcome to the Emerald City

  1. this is just a follow up to your article. if posiible could you please contact me regarding some incorrect information in this article. one is the Lake of Isles is not part of the reservation. It is located in the town of North Stonington
    thanks…

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