Skip to content

The Grandest New Years’ Eve

Tis the season to reminisce of holiday celebrations of years gone by, and none such event sticks in my memory quite like New Years’ Eve, 1999.  A celebration night to rival all other celebrations of its kind, I recall the way thousands of New Englanders gathered at Foxwoods Resort Casino to usher a brand new millennium in the utmost of style.

Beaming columns of white light danced and twirled against the blackened winter sky, signaling the commencement of the most extravagant party around.  Limousines crunched their way through frozen pockets of snow, greeted by sharply dressed, white-gloved attendants.  Inside, a chorus of jingling slots, disco beats and cheering gamblers beckoned the new arrivals.  A blur of faces, flashbulbs and confetti lined velvet roped red carpets leading into an exclusive soiree of high rollers, celebrities, athletes, business owners, politicians and tribal members clad in the finest evening wear, gemstones, glitter and furs.

The theme captured the allure of Hollywood, as if Studio 54 met Gatsby glamour on one extravagant night unlike any other, televised live worldwide.  Whimsical clusters of film props cascaded along a soaring ceiling.  A Star Ship Enterprise replica, a crashing airplane, the Hollywood sign reproduction and random Star Wars paraphernalia were among a few that caught my attention.

Throughout the room, troupes of professional dancers and acrobats twirled, flipped and shimmied the night away like glittering eye candy in perfect synchronicity, luring guests to join in as music filled the atmosphere.  Steps away, disco diva Donna Summer took center stage, revving the crowd into a swaying frenzy while belting out her familiar list of sing-along standards and 70’s ballads.

Last Dance…last chance for love. 

CinderellaAs midnight ticked closer and the symbolic crystalline ball began its descent, so did the countdown to usher in a new millennium.  Four…three…two…and an explosion of cheers filled the air.

My tired eyes, red from exhaustion, remained wide with amazement as I fixed my gaze upward while twirling among the dancing multitudes.  For one fleeting moment, I felt like a princess.  Thousands of balloons and iridescent confetti gently fell from the ceiling, blanketing the crowd while a sea of clinking of crystal flutes rang celebratory toasts for a new millennium of hope and promise.

The shining fanfare of that night faded predictably into the dawn of the new year, beckoning the ripeness of another new beginning.  And then another.  Yet, as each year passed, the uneasy foreboding of silent truth seemed to warn of what few would be able or willing to recognize for quite some time:

It’s all too good to be true.

Having settled into the ease that comes with wealth and privilege, the early successes of this gambling mecca unlike any other made it quite natural to assume we would remain wealthy the rest of our lives.  Would it be possible to sustain the lifestyles of our rapidly growing community for decades to follow, or would winds of change one day arrive to reveal hidden weaknesses within gaming’s seductive façade?

At that time, none of us could fully understand how, when, or why such change might happen.  Nevertheless, the clues of the inevitable would soon begin to manifest.

An open letter to The Day newspaper

I feel compelled to respond to an editorial featured in The Day newspaper from Saturday October 5 entitled “Tale of the Thomaseswith hopes that, as a tribal member, I might shed a unique perspective on this unusual community rocked by  years of wealth, crippling debt and ongoing controversy.

Michael and Steven Thomas are distant cousins of mine.  Although I know neither of them personally, I’ve observed them in leadership over many years.  I have listened as they spoke at hundreds of tribal meetings. I’ve butted heads with them on occasion. I’ve laughed with them from time to time, and I’ve even bear-hugged them at powwows and funerals.  That’s what families do.  With this in mind, what I have to say next will likely raise a few eyebrows.

I believe the Thomas brothers were captives of our tribe’s political environment.

Please understand I do not excuse or dismiss any action or decision that culminated toward the financial demise of my community.  In fact, to be blatantly honest, my tribe has been through hell.  Nearly every family in my community has struggled significantly from the complex financial throes of recent years, yet, despite the overwhelming stress in the shadows of organizational restructuring, a growing awareness is taking root.  It’s the kind of awareness that comes from deep, soulful reflections of we’ve been through and the lessons we might learn from our mistakes.

With this in mind, I believe one of our greatest challenges at Mashantucket exists within my tribe’s constitutional powers of government.  Simply put, when a strong political clique collides with a tribal council holding all the power to do anything they want with the tribe’s resources uncontested…it’s a recipe for disaster.

Leaders who make and interpret their own laws will eventually face the temptation to believe they are above the law.  Yet, ironically, they often become subservient to the manipulation of their own political support groups.  As demands for wealth or power escalate, these elected officials become absorbed into a vicious cycle of self-preserving envy and ambition, fueling an atmosphere of strife and evil among themselves.  (See James 3:16 KJV.)

Michael and Steven suffer publicly because of decisions made during a time when both likely felt invincible.  So far, Michael was convicted at trial and Steven has pleaded guilty to theft.  Sentencing is pending for both men.  Yet, even before the final court action, you state: “…there is no denying these convictions have sullied the tribe’s image.”

Oh how quickly we forget folks like John G. Rowland and Vincent “Buddy” Cianci.  Despite the fact that each man fell from their pinnacles of grace, neither of these former state leaders managed to tarnish the images of Connecticut and Rhode Island.  Why?  It’s simple.  Neither of these men represented the value systems of the states they governed, and in much the same way, the Thomas brothers do not represent my tribe as a whole.

In reality, most of our tribal members fall into one of three categories: those who are unaware of the tribal politics played out over the last two decades, those who have grown chronically disillusioned, and those who remain silently neutral out of fear of retribution.  Some gave up on challenging the powers that be, as though the act of beating their heads repeatedly against a brick wall left them with little hope for positive change.  Others were disenfranchised for refusing to buy in to the political hustle. Still others feel their voices do not matter, or if they did speak out, they fear they’ll be blocked from career opportunities or – worse case scenario – get fired.

What my people need most is PRAYER, not public ridicule.

Photo credit: Getty Images

Photo credit: Getty Images

As for the Thomas brothers, they are simply human.  They are not the first human beings to go through such public accusations and tribulations in this region and they won’t be the last. Yet, what I find most extraordinary in the wake of these trials is my community’s resilience. I’ve witnessed a growing movement of mercy and forgiveness. The Thomas brothers are very LOVED.  My tribe is willing to embrace and carry them through a very tough season.

We, at Mashantucket, do not eat our own.

The fact is, the heart of my people is very much alive, and our growing willingness to love and understand one another, learn from our transgressions and rebuild a legacy of hope is, in my opinion, worth every bit of the shaking it has taken to get us to this point.  May God continue to help us all.

(See my guest op-ed response in The Day by clicking here.)

A boat named Sassacus

The air was already hot and thick with humidity that summer morning in 1997.  It was the ship’s launch day.  My tangerine silk dress clung to my legs, and my hairdo began to unravel into a flat, scraggly mess.  Great.  I still had not acclimated to Connecticut summers.  Not only did I fail to dress correctly for the heat index,  I still hadn’t found styling products that worked for me.   Rather than looking presentable for this special occasion,  I felt more like a sweaty poodle.

I joined the crowd seated on the metal bleachers while a team of suits assembled to finalize the morning’s press conference agenda. We were about to formally present and Christen the first high speed passenger ferry vessel ever built, owned and operated by the Mashantucket Pequots.   There were at least three hundred of us gathered together for the event.  We sat in the shadow of the expansive New London Bridge, right along the shoreline against the Thames River’s edge.  Long ago, it was called Pequot River due to our tribe’s original dominance of the shoreline hunting, fishing and trading territories.  That all changed after the English arrived.  They freely took control of the territory, and the land at the south bank of the mouth of the river became New London, and the river was renamed Thames.

Behind the bleachers off to one side stood a large white reception tent.  Workers quickly arranged dozens of small round tables and folding chairs as the catering staff rushed to complete their finishing touches on a variety of gourmet offerings, elegantly displayed inside the polished silver chafing dishes set on long, white linen-covered tables.

Outside, the press conference was about to begin. The crowd began to hush just enough to be able to hear the gentle sounds of the river splashing along the shore.  Several business leaders and political dignitaries sat behind a podium on the platform in front of the crowd.  Behind them, cradled in the heavy straps of an enormous boat-hauler ready for its initial launch, was Sassacus.

The vessel Sassacus was named after a beloved seventeenth-century Pequot chief, a very close relative of the nearby Mohegan tribe patriarch, Uncas.   Sassacus’s gleaming white hull was adorned with shimmering purple and white wampum sash designs twirled down the length of the ship.  Turquoise accents highlighted the bold letters spelling FOXWOODS along each side, paying tribute to both the tribe’s casino resort along with conveying Pequot cultural significance.

Several state politicians took their five-minute turns at the podium, congratulating Richard “Skip” Hayward (our tribal chairman at the time) and heralding the innovative genius of this new form of water transportation.  Skip wore an elegant black suit, his hair combed back neatly and tucked under a white ball cap, which read: Pequot River Shipworks.  Somewhat distracted from the speeches, I focused on the ship itself.

Sassacus was a vessel equipped with two jet turbine engines, capable of propelling it at a maximum of 55 miles per hour along the Long Island Sound waterways.  Its twin-hulled design ensured a smooth ride, slicing effortlessly through waves and swells.   An elegant teak finish with meticulously polished brass accents surrounded the vessel’s interior walls, complementing the colorful upholstered seating areas and luxurious wool marine carpeting.  They were cabins fit for first class transportation, if not royalty.  Two bar areas, one on each level of the ship, offered gourmet salads, assorted tea sandwiches and lobster rolls, beer, wines and top-shelf liquors.  No expense was spared.

Then came the moment of Christening.  Flashbulbs popped all around us as Myra Christensen, one of our beloved tribal elders, stood along side Skip to smash a giant magnum of champagne on cue against the ship’s hull.  With a broad, lovely grin and one firm dash of her right arm, the job was done!  The crowd cheered wildly as the bottle shattered, exploding its bubbly contents along one side of the vessel.  It was a spectacular moment in our tribe’s history.  Aunt Myra passed away years later, but I will never forget how absolutely beautiful she was that morning dressed in brown deerskin tribal regalia, trimmed in wampum beads and feathers.

Sassacus was a short lived dream due to the vessel’s exorbitant costs for construction, maintenance and operation.  Jet fueled turbine engines were not economically feasible for the intended haul down to Manhattan and back to New London.  Even the shorter jaunts scheduled between New London and Martha’s Vinyard, and Glen Cove to Lower Manhattan cost the tribe more than we could ever earn in ticket sales.  Nevertheless, the ship’s first few years saw at least one extraordinary encounter with destiny.

999138_10151585157691046_735383508_nThe morning of September 11, 2001 began like any other Tuesday.  Sassacus delivered its daily morning run of passengers to work from Glen Cove, Long Island to Lower Manhattan, only to suddenly become front row spectators to one of America’s most fearsome terrorist attacks on record.  Captivated by the thick black smoke pouring high from the two concrete and glass towers of the World Trade Center, the ship’s crew watched in utter disbelief as the black soot and fiery ash filtered into the atmosphere and darkened the Manhattan skyline.  Hundreds of tiny brown flecks drifted slowly downward, from the jet planes’  impact sites toward the Manhattan streets below.  Jumpers.

Sassacus raced to the nearest pier, and its crew quickly joined with New York Port Authority officials in scrambling as many evacuees on board as possible.  The Sassacus crew then rushed them all to safety at a nearby marina on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River, and continued returning for more passengers as often as they were able.  Several hundred people were rescued by Sassacus that morning, before the horrific, fateful collapse of the two buildings.  Our ship was in the right place, at exactly the right time.

Sassacus and it’s sister vessel Tatobam were eventually sold to ferry management companies in the Bahamas and Southeast Asia, and Pequot River Shipworks closed its doors permanently nearly one decade ago.  But…

If the only reason the vessel Sassacus existed was – against so many odds – to gain one strategic commuter ferry route from Glen Cove to lower Manhattan, and ultimately assist in rescuing as many hundreds of lives as it did…

Then I believe the Tribe’s ownership of Pequot River Shipworks and those two ships was very much worth the expense.

Below this article is a brief 10 minute video that features Sassacus’s former glory.  About half way through this promotional film, you will see Sassacus cruise up to the Manhattan skyline in New York, and the majestic World Trade Center towers come into view.  It’s a powerful moment…touching and beautiful.  The final scenes feature a gorgeous Block Island harbor at sunset.  I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

%d bloggers like this: