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Fifteen years later, and no mention of Skip

The older I get, the faster time flies.  Today my sons are grown but it doesn’t feel like much time has passed since my husband and I moved here in 1996 with a preschooler and toddler to begin an extraordinary life-chapter with the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation.

Two years later, the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center opened its doors to the public.  I was there. I remember it well.

The museum was a $211 million dollar, one-of-a-kind facility, and it easily gained international attention.  Hundreds of tribal leaders, state and national political representatives, celebrity guests and patrons gathered outside the museum for a ceremonial ribbon cutting.  Once finished, we ventured inside to tour the exhibits and back of house areas, and enjoyed elegant buffets, cocktail receptions and acoustic performances by Native American artists.

A press conference was held at the center of the soaring, glass-enclosed museum gathering space.  It was a perfect setting amidst towering pines and bright blue skies to draw attention to the years of hard work by those who spent blood, sweat and tears cultivating life out of the seeds of an improbable vision.  At the center of that press conference was our tribe’s Chairman, Richard “Skip” Hayward.

Photo credit: Alexis Ann, The Resident

Photo credit: Alexis Ann, The Resident

Skip received well-deserved accolades – not only as an extraordinary visionary – but a passionate advocate for the resurgence of a once conquered and forgotten Indian tribe.  Everything about that day seemed to radiate a sense of excellence.

Fast-forward to today, and I can hardly believe next month marks the museum’s 15th anniversary.  Frankly, I nearly forgot this milestone until a museum publication arrived in the mail, Crossroads.  As I eagerly flipped through page after page of memoir articles, timelines and photos depicting featured performers and the early days of the museum’s development, I was surprised to find no mention of Richard “Skip” Hayward in any part of that publication.

Not one article.  Not a single photo.  Not even a footnote.  Nada.

Something is seriously wrong with that.

I admit I wasn’t here in the early days.  I didn’t live in trailers plumbed with garden hoses.  I didn’t gather with others to brainstorm on ideas to develop this swampy, rocky, heavily wooded  seventeenth century Indian reservation.  I never mucked out the hog pens, and I didn’t dig up rocks and prepare soil for planting the community garden.  I didn’t chop firewood or set up a hydroponic green house, and I never stirred giant vats of boiling maple tree sap for hours on end during the dead of winter.  I wasn’t at the Mr. Pizza restaurant in the early days, splattered with flour and tomato sauce, flinging pizza dough and serving up pitchers of beer and soda to those  who met to discuss how a formal tribal government should look.

But Skip was.

Predictably, a few critics surfaced within the tribe over the years, envious over their own lack of “spot light” recognition.  Those critics eagerly pointed out, time and time again, how Skip was “not the only one” living at Mashantucket and working hard during those early days.

Alright then, I’m sure he wasn’t.  But hear me out on this one.

For any of us to deny that Richard “Skip” Hayward possessed the pioneering vision and leadership that was pivotal to the recognition of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe and the early development of our community and business enterprises, we wouldn’t merely be irresponsible, we would be downright childish.

Let’s consider the odds of what happened at Mashantucket over the last thirty years.  And as we do, let’s keep in mind how one tiny spark can harness enough power to set ablaze millions of acres of land.  (I’ll circle back around to that part in a moment.)

Consider how one man – mocked by locals for what was considered “foolish ambition” – somehow became a relentless force to be reckoned with, as well as the face of an unlikely success story recognized world-wide.

Consider how, when not a single American bank would provide a business development loan, one Malaysian billionaire happened to cross Skip’s path and did just that.  Consider the odds for how this foreign investor found himself in right place at the right time, brainstorming the potential for unique business concepts with a rugged yankee pipe fitter – high school and Bible school educated – who possessed the perfect combination of charisma, vision and influence.  Consider the odds for how, among few Mashantuckets arose one extraordinarily ordinary agent for change.  And whether you love it or hate it, consider how one Indian casino concept – during an era when none like it existed – became the pioneering “spark” that rapidly set this nation ablaze, spawning what is now a $28 billion dollar industry.

With odds like those, no one saw it coming.  Least of all Skip.

I believe Skip Hayward deserves some recognition.

Skip’s passion for history and culture to be represented in everything built on the reservation deserves recognition.  His desire to see tribal members prosper no matter what family they were born into deserves recognition.  His infectious enthusiasm for telling “war” stories about Pequot ancestors, historical sites, legends, ghost stories and the Underground Railroad deserves recognition.  His vision for freedom – freedom from debt, freedom of opportunity, freedom to take risks, fail, learn and grow, and freedom to empower future generations of leaders – deserves recognition.

I miss that old brown 70’s era Lincoln Town Car Skip drove each day while others around him strived to out-do one another with luxury cars and limousine transportation.  I miss how his arrival to work provoked a scramble of anxious employees manning their stations to prepare and greet him.  I miss his knack for having favor with all kinds of people, from business executives, politicians and celebrities to welders, bikers, landscapers and banquet servers.  Skip related well with almost everyone due to his rare combination of no-nonsense candor, conviction and approachability.   He often went out of his way to recognize those working in service professions.  He had walked in their shoes.  He never forgot where he came from.  He always took time to see them, thank and encourage them.

I even miss his temper.  Richard “Skip” Hayward is human, after all…with as many faults, quirks, stubbornness, baggage and frustrations as any one else, often misunderstood by those envious or suspicious of his abilities and good fortune.  Skip held a strong internal conviction to give his people a “leg up” rather than a “hand out”.  He wanted people to work hard and be rewarded for it.  He often voiced frustration with those who believed differently – those with entitlement attitudes demanding instant wealth.

Skip grew angry over uncontrolled spending, particularly the rate at which the tribe’s consultant and agency contracts exponentially grew, numbering into the thousands.  Management often struck lucrative business deals for their industry buddies with the tribe or Foxwoods.  To gain a better idea of how much money was funneled outside the tribe through such deals, Skip requested a copy of every active consultant contract.  The documents were gathered together, clipped into 3-ring binders and quickly delivered as requested.  The results were staggering.  Skip’s office was half filled by those binders, stacked about four feet high.

Memories like these cause me wonder what would have happened had Skip continued as the chairman of the Mashantucket Pequot tribe.  Would we be in the same situation we find ourselves in now?  Maybe yes, maybe no.  Perhaps it was always inevitable, since one man cannot control the actions and intentions of hundreds.  But regardless of what anyone says or thinks about him, few can argue Richard “Skip” Hayward was a passionate leader completely consumed by a vision…a Pequot who did everything he could think of to help his tribe.

I, for one, will never forget.

Along came Polly, the “Rules Police”

Many years ago when our boys were much younger, we took our family on a three-day weekend vacation in York, Maine.  It was always nice to get away from the reservation rat-race to decompress for a few days, and we were fortunate to have the means to do so a few times over the years.  I love Maine.  York is located on Maine’s southeast coastline; a great place to take kids and play at the beaches, boutique shop, get your fill of lobster and then work off the extra calories on long, ocean front walks with breathtaking views.

We found a gorgeous place to stay on Nubble Point (a peninsula between Long Sands and Short Sands Beach) offering spacious, one to three bedroom condo-type accommodations with all the comforts of home, including laundry, kitchen, and living room space.  But the best part of it was every room had the same picture perfect view of Nubble Lighthouse, right off shore.

I was checking in at the front desk and signing papers when, quite unexpectedly, along came Polly*.

Hey, is HE over ten years old?” blurted the inn owners’ only daughter, her eyes wide and brows raised while pointing directly at my younger son.

The front desk clerk glanced over to the doorway where the girl stood and sighed.  “Meet Polly,” she muttered.  Polly was about eight years old, standing barely four feet tall.  She wore a bright pink tank top, floral denim shorts and jelly shoes. Her shoulder-length, tangled brown hair was swept off her face and secured with a pink plastic headband.

“Hi Polly. No he’s not ten, but almost,” I replied. “He’s actually nine and a half.”

“Well then, he can’t swim by himself in the pool.  Anyone under the age of ten has to be accompanied by an adult in the pool area,” Polly said.

“Got it.  Thanks Polly,” I replied.

Within moments it became very clear to us that Polly was the resident “rules police”.  She trotted along behind us as we made our way to our room, ticking off every rule and regulation she could think of for our awareness.

“You didn’t bring any pets here, did you?  Because you can’t have pets with you if you’re gonna stay here.  Be careful using the barbecue pits so you don’t get burned.  You can walk on the grass in this area here, but not over there.  And you can park in the upper parking lot this weekend but if you are here on Monday you need to move your car because my parents are hosting a private event.  And if you want to go down to the beach, you need to use the beach stairs over there, but you’re not allowed to climb on the rocks.  And the pool opens at 8 AM and closes at 9 PM sharp!” Polly said.

Just then a petite, attractive college girl came bouncing around the corner, somewhat out of breath from wrestling with the leash of a very large and energetic Labra-Doodle.  The dog bounded around goofily, tossing his long, perfectly groomed mop of flaxen corkscrew curls.  He flopped down to roll in the grass, his bulbous pink nose sniffing intently at the air around him.  He looked just like a cartoon character.

“Is she bothering you?  I’m so sorry,” she said.  “I’m Lucy*, Polly’s nanny.”

“Nice to meet you, Lucy.  No worries, she’s fine,” I replied.  “Polly was just giving us the run-down on the rules here.”

“Oh no, not again,” vented Lucy.  “I swear, this kid has got the most intense, type-A personality I’ve ever seen on any kid her age!  She has got to be in control of everything around her!”

We all laughed.  It was really not a big deal to us.  Truth is, I had grown accustomed to personalities like Polly’s.   I thought she was quite mild in the way she wielded her regulatory, watchdog sense of ownership regulations.  She was also really young, with plenty of years to grow and mature into her destiny as a future leader and heiress.  But not everyone has the chance to learn, grow, and mature in a nurturing and protective environment.

At my tribe’s reservation, there are many type-A folks, but unlike Polly, many of our people grew accustomed to the rigidity and harshness of condemning, legalistic, dysfunctional and often abusive family or work environments.  Unresolved past traumatic experiences will influence the way someone wields authority and leadership.  For this reason, there are many who fiercely enforce rigid, prohibitive rules and regulations that sometimes do more harm than good.  And one area we can observe this phenomenon is in the rules dictating the boundaries for the training, development and employability of our community.

The Rules of the Game

Tribal members are only allowed to apply for vacant employment positions in which they are qualified, regardless of whether or not they have an interest or talent in that line of work. (Sure it sounds reasonable from an outside perspective, but stay with me and I’ll explain the issue.) For instance, an excellent writer and communicator may thrive in a variety of areas, but finds himself pigeon-holed in a janitor position because that’s all he qualified for at the time of his job search in the current economy.  A skilled emergency medical technician may have no choice but to work in table games rather than being mentored and developed for an appropriate career path in public safety or health services.  A brilliant moderator skilled in conflict resolution might be an amazing asset for a multitude of government positions, but finds herself stuck as a Keno runner because that was the only job available to her.  A math wizard who would be brilliant in Finance might have to settle as a valet parking attendant.

Why this does more harm than good

By limiting career opportunities for tribal members and forcing them to compete with one another for entry level labor positions regardless of the need for entry or mid level professional and technical career opportunities, our people are not given the freedom to leverage their talents, develop career goals, and become meaningfully invested in their own tribal government.  As a result, the whole community suffers, simply because we have wandered away from the original vision for community and economic development.

Back to original intent

Among the reasons why Foxwoods Resort Casino was built, one of the main intentions was to give our people career development and entrepreneurship opportunities they may not have otherwise gained outside the tribe.  With eight to ten thousand jobs representing a very wide range of careers on and around the reservation, it’s really not that difficult to connect three to five hundred adult tribal members with career opportunities that align with their talents and interests.

Another one of the original intentions for community development was to embrace our people as the tribe’s most valuable resources.  Sadly, over the last twenty years we’ve wandered very far from this ideology, exchanging the value of our people for the value of cold hard cash.   But mark my words…

If we truly desire to ensure stability for our future generations, it is imperative that we turn completely away from destructive, materialistic “money-lust” and re-embrace the original repatriation and community development visions.

At Mashantucket, we’ve had a unique opportunity to give our people a leg-up in higher education, life skills and career opportunities for more than twenty years, so it makes sense to develop an appropriate career development and succession-planning program that embraces and nurtures the strengths and talents of our people.  Such a program should also embrace and respect existing tribal and non-tribal employees by granting incentives for those enthusiastic about training and mentoring tribal members.

First thing first: Change the way we view our own people.

We become our own “Rules Police” when we respond reactively to people and situations based on ill-conceived, gossip-poisoned assumptions about one another. When we do so, we end up shooting ourselves in the foot, throwing the baby out with the bathwater, or any other cliche’ representing scrapping something that had a great deal of potential, if only we exercised the patience and creativity needed to get things working the way they should.  But what we did was more like a knee-jerk reaction.  An attempt to block future problems from happening based solely on the past experience of a few within a problematic system of bureaucratic governance.

In order to embrace our people as our most valuable resources, we need to put an end to our “reactiveness”.  We must become proactive, viewing everyone as potential solutions rather than as anticipated problems.  By not doing so, we miss an opportunity to build unity and strength throughout our community, fueling hopes, dreams, aspirations and courage for our people.  We may even miss out on embracing the most influential and effective leaders our tribe has ever seen, or even hinder the involvement of former leaders who made a profoundly positive difference.

Certainly no one is perfect.  Everyone has their own problems, quirks, issues and insecurities to some degree.  But if we offer an environment through which our people are nurtured rather than regulated, given mercy rather than condemnation, and offered the grace to thrive creatively and constructively, our people will gain confidence, begin to heal from their bad experiences, grow where they are planted, and realize their own inherent potential as something far greater than anything they ever imagined before.

It’s your turn: Have you ever wished rules could be broken or changed?  Why or why not?

*Names changed

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.

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.

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