Amid gaming success, tribes seek to counter misconceptions, educate
After more than a quarter-century operating businesses that serve as economic engines for the region and the state, employing thousands of people and providing millions of dollars to worthy causes, the casino-owning Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes have arrived, to put it mildly.
Then again, they were always here.
And therein lies James Gessner Jr.’s frustration with those who solely equate his Mohegan Tribe with the casino it runs, Mohegan Sun, not to mention its other gaming enterprises across North America, which annually generate more than $1 billion in revenue.
“It does drive me nuts that people think it’s the Mohegan Tribe Casino,” said Gessner, chairman of the Mohegan Tribal Council. “That’s probably the biggest misconception out there about us ― that the tribe is here because of the casino. It’s the exact opposite. We’ve been here for hundreds and hundreds of years.”
It’s not the locals who need to be schooled in Mohegan history, Gessner acknowledged. With geographical landmarks, streets and schools in the area bearing Mohegan names, the tribe’s legacy has long been embedded in the communities surrounding the tribe’s reservation and beyond.
“We’re lucky, people around here respect us,” Gessner said. “It’s not like that for every tribe.”
And it wasn’t always like that for the Mashantucket Pequots, who pioneered tribal gaming in the region, first opening a high-stakes bingo hall in 1986 and then rolling it into Foxwoods Resort Casino in 1992. Back then, there was much questioning of tribal members’ authenticity and resentment over the tribe’s sudden wealth and sovereign status.
Mohegan Sun opened in 1996.
“It wasn’t always what we would have hoped,” Rodney Butler, the Mashantucket chairman, said of his tribe’s relationship with the nontribal population. “That’s why we built Foxwoods and the museum almost simultaneously. We had plans for the museum before we had plans for a casino.”
The Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center was made to tell the tribe’s story.
“We are not the Foxwoods Tribe, we are the Fox people,” Butler said, echoing Gessner’s point. “Whenever I hear that, I correct it.”
Some still don’t realize, he said, that the Mashantuckets are not a business. They are a collection of families who govern themselves.
“I see it regularly with politicians,” said Butler, who has represented the tribe in gaming-expansion talks with governors and state lawmakers for the better part of the past decade.
“They speak to us as if we’re a corporation,” he said. “An example would be when they’re negotiating a bill from a short-range perspective. Most corporations would accept it on those terms, but when we look at it, we have to think about its effect on our kids and on their kids. It impacts your negotiating style.”
Over the years, the acceptance of gaming in general as well as the casino-owning tribes’ success ― and largesse ― have lessened tensions between tribal members and the nontribal population. Concerns about organized crime connections still dogged casinos in the 1980s and ’90s, but Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun could hardly be more mainstream today, playing host to everything from high school sporting events to political conventions and debates.
Casino and tribal officials have been recognized as chamber-of-commerce citizens of the year, and, during the COVID-19 pandemic, both casinos hosted testing and vaccination clinics on a massive scale.
“It there’s ever a need for anything in our community, anything it needs police or fire to respond to, we try to be the first ones to help out,” Gessner said.
Despite the Mashantuckets’ own efforts to be good neighbors, tribal members do encounter some racial bias on occasion, according to Butler.
“We’re still dealing with it, but it’s gotten better,” he said. “In local school systems, we still have students targeted as ‘those Indians, those kids from the reservation.’ I don’t want to downplay it.”
All of the region’s state-recognized tribes ― the Mashantuckets and the Mohegans, who also are federally recognized, and the Eastern Pequots ― have come together to educate state officials about Native American history.
Butler took center stage a year ago, urging a panel to recommend the removal of a statue of Capt. John Mason from the exterior of the State Capitol. Butler testified that Mason, the English commander who led forces against the Pequots in a 1637 massacre, should be considered a war criminal and his likeness shipped to a less prominent location.
Also in 2021, the tribes successfully advocated for legislation calling for the teaching of Native American history in Connecticut’s public schools. The Mohegans have developed such curriculum, which they’ll make available to the state’s school districts.
Mitchel Ray, the Eastern Pequots’ chairman, said his tribe battles the “major misconception” that all Native Americans have casinos and, consequently, are rich.
“We often get confused with our cousins (the Mashantuckets),” he said. “We’ve gotten quotes for work on the reservation that are inflated because they think we have money.”
Ray believes greater acceptance lies ahead for his tribe, which has undertaken infrastructure improvements on its North Stonington reservation and plans to build tribal offices and a community center.