The Magical Foxwoods

When I first moved to the East Coast everyone asked me if I had been to this magical place called Foxwoods.  The way people described it I thought Foxwoods was some kind of an oasis.  To say the least, I was thoroughly disappointed to find out that it was just an Indian casino.

Gambling is not my thing and I have been to plenty of smoky, dingy casinos.  That is why I was thoroughly surprised to hear from multiple alumni at the CGP Alumni Weekend that one of the best museums they have been to is The Mashantucket Pequot Museum & Research Center.  After hearing so many rave reviews, I had to investigate this magical oasis for myself.

The first thing I found when I searched the Internet for “Foxwoods museum” was controversy.  In 2008, Foxwoods opened a $700 million dollar addition to their casino.  This addition was hit by a firestorm of critiques.

When Donald Trump lost the bid for this addition to MGM he questioned the validity of the Mashantucket Pequot tribe and said, they “don’t look like Indians.” [1]  Although anthropologists and historians have documented the tribe’s history of oppression and struggles, critics continue to question the tribe’s legitimacy today.  A common complaint on the Internet claims that the tribe was extinct until there was the prospect of a casino.

In fact, the Mashantucket Pequot tribe was federally recognized in 1983 after a long struggle to gain back the parts of the reservation that were sold in 1855 and again 1856 by the State of Connecticut without the tribe’s consent.  Once the tribe was federally recognized, it worked to attract descendents whose ancestors had fled the harsh reservation system. [2]

How did the tribe respond to the claims that they “weren’t even Indians” in 2008?  The tribal leaders turned to the museum and research library.  On May 17, the day after the fabulous cocktail party that celebrated the opening of the MGM tower, the tribe gathered to celebrate the opening of the traveling exhibit “Race: Are We So Different?”

Unlike the dioramas and films in the rest of the museum, this exhibit was designed for science museums.  The American Anthropological Association developed the exhibit to help the visitor understand the way science throughout history has created the idea of race.  One of its stated goals is to examine the “reality and unreality” of race. [3]

The Story of Race Exhibit

The museum chose to contextualize this exhibit with its own story.  Hanging over the entrance to the interactive exhibit was a photograph of over 100 tribal members.  The people in the pictures range from “fair-skinned blondes and red-heads to blacks and people who look more like the classic image of native Americans.” [4]  Dr. Kevin McBride, Research Director at the museum and Professor of Anthropology at Connecticut University, said, “The American public has this idea of native people that’s ingrained … that carries into what people expect the Pequots to look like and act like.” [5]

Today, the museum continues to promote understanding of American Indian identity.  In the permanent gallery, a mobile home is on display in the exhibit, symbolizing life on the reservation in the 1970s.  Inside visitors explore what it was like to live on the reservation and listen to oral histories of tribal members who lived there.  The exhibit aims to show that the reality of the reservation was that “more and more people are forced to leave for economic reasons,” explains Dr. McBride.  As tribal member John Holder remembers in his oral history, “We had zero income. There wasn’t something going on that provided income, and we were kind of in a situation where you were forced to use what you have.” [6]

The gallery concludes with the film, Bringing the People Home, which responds to the critiques of the tribe’s legitimacy and explains how the tribe rebuilt their nation and achieved Federal recognition in 1983.  The Mashantucket Pequot tribe struggled for recognition and now it faces popular belief that it does not deserve its success.  Once a tribe overcomes some of the trappings of the reservation system, new challenges develop.  Furthermore, for every Foxwoods there are countless numbers of tribes that have not been recognized or don’t have a casino.  What is the answer for these tribes?


[1] Parsons, Claudia. “Gambling Success Brings Controversy for Tribe.” Reuters.com US & International News. 09 June 2008. <http://www.reuters.com/article/2008/06/09/us-usa-gambling-pequot-idUSN2834775820080609&gt;.

[2] Mashantucket Museum and Research Center. <http://www.pequotmuseum.org/&gt;.

[3] RACE – Are We So Different? A Project of the American Anthropological Association. <http://www.understandingrace.org/home.html&gt;.

[5] Parsons, Claudia. “Gambling Success Brings Controversy for Tribe.” Reuters.com US & International News. 09 June 2008. <http://www.reuters.com/article/2008/06/09/us-usa-gambling-pequot-idUSN2834775820080609&gt;.

[6] Ibid

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