Last week I posted part one of memories growing up at the Mashantucket Pequot reservation over the last 20+ years, so today I present “part two”.
I’ll begin by sharing a little something about when I was first enrolled in the tribe….not as a full member of the tribe, but as a “provisional” member. What on earth is a “provisional member”? Yeah, that was my question too, back in the day. So, check this out…
When we arrived to Mashantucket there were a few kind-hearted Pequots who welcomed us, but many met us with scornful glances and occasional confrontation. Some ignored us altogether. They didn’t know us from Adam, and they were quick to remind us of that fact regularly. But they had their reasons.
Just prior to our arrival, the tribal council made a decision to limit benefits for newly enrolled adult tribal members and appoint them as “provisional members” for their first year. Once the casino opened to the public, the tribe was overwhelmed by hundreds of membership applications flooding in each week from applicants around the world vying to become members; most of whom did not meet the membership criteria. There were so many applications that some feared the strain of rapid community growth and how it might impact the security of those already there. Apart from that obvious problem, another reason for provisional membership was due to the actions of one person who sexually abused tribal children during a summer youth program. He was arrested, imprisoned and permanently banished from the tribe. Caution was high, and for very good cause.
I was one of about fifty people who became provisional members. Most of us understood the reasoning behind the decision, but this label still felt as if we were punished for being outsiders rather than having grown up on or near the reservation. The irony was, although some were angry about the influx of people moving back to the reservation when they discovered the casino, the reality was this: if we wanted to be eligible to become full tribal members, all provisional members were required to move on or near the reservation and prove their worth in the community for one year. The tribal membership would then vote on each individual, deciding whether or not to enroll us as official members with full benefits and privileges. So if we wanted to be enrolled Pequots, we simply had to move there. It was all or nothing. And although we were uncertain of what we were getting ourselves into, we faced quite a bit of hostility and suspicion from many Pequots who had lived here a long time. Who the hell do you think you are? You don’t know your ass from a hole in the ground! I don’t know you! Who’s your ancestor? Did you move to Mashantucket because of the money and opportunities? The honest answer is, some did and some didn’t. But in our case, it was like were darned if we did, and darned if we didn’t.
As provisional members, we were given job placement assistance and basic medical care, along with a modest salary. Nevertheless, we were not eligible for tribal housing or education benefits, and we were not allowed to vote in that year’s tribal elections. The larger families began to pressure the tribal council to overturn the provisional membership law so they could bring their own family members into full membership status, which would build their political strength. On the first Sunday in November, 1996, an official vote of the general membership took place at the tribe’s annual meeting, which overwhelmingly approved to convert each provisional member over to full tribal member status immediately. It was official: I became a fully enrolled Mashantucket Pequot tribal member that day. The very next thing I did was apply for college. I was accepted to the University of Connecticut.