This month marks the 375th anniversary of the Pequot Massacre, an event that radically changed New England and set a negative precedent for all Native American tribes throughout our nation, long before the official birth of the United States. Before I get into a few specifics about that event, bear with me for a moment while I fast forward several hundred years to another precedent-setting chain of events when, against all odds, my tribe opened a lucrative business which, once again, transformed our community and nation forever.
I don’t believe any of us could have ever accurately predicted the precedent for radical change we set on February 17, 1992. It was the day my tribe, the Mashantucket Pequots, opened the doors of Foxwoods Resort Casino and introduced the world to the first gaming facility of its kind ever built on an Indian reservation. We didn’t realize it back then, but we stumbled into something much bigger than the start of a new business on a tiny reservation in Southeastern Connecticut. What we did caused a huge ripple effect, triggering the birth of an American industry. With the launch of our casino, my tribe inadvertently opened a wide door of opportunity to hundreds of federally recognized tribes, inspiring what is now a $26.5 billion dollar industry with 240 tribes operating 460 casinos in 28 states. Yet, despite the unforeseen, far-reaching influence and success of this relatively new industry, things have changed considerably for the Mashantucket Pequots.
Foxwoods Resort Casino’s overwhelming success had long fueled my tribe’s notoriety as one of the wealthiest tribes in North America, with only a few hundred enrolled members collectively owning a multi-billion dollar gaming industry mecca. But the last twenty years reveal a much different story within the Mashantucket Pequot tribal community, as we now find ourselves standing at a crossroad.
We are faced with an option of choosing to forget the past, dismissing the “war stories” of our collective experiences and insights and instead strive to build stability with very little guidance using whatever resources remain.
Or we can choose a different option; one that exists outside the box of experiential filters that cloud our perspectives. We can choose to reflect back on the past twenty years with transparency, honesty and humility, to learn from our mistakes as well as our success.
How did this one tiny tribe, owners of North America’s largest casino, suddenly find themselves reeling from the affects of overwhelming financial debt? Of course there are many reasons. And while there are many ways to point fingers at this person or that one, striving to figure out who spearheaded which decisions causing what result, etc. I don’t believe malicious finger pointing is a productive approach to problem-solving. That said, what I do believe is this: there is much to learn from what we’ve been through. Lessons about life, family, spirituality and inherent flaws common within all of mankind regardless of tribe, town, city or nation. These are spiritual insights hidden deep within our community, all of which just might inspire what we really need for a holistic restructuring, reconciliation and ultimate revival for our people.
Consider the possibility that our last twenty years were shaped by something much greater than we ever realized. Something long patterned, deep within the historical timeline of a simple, agrarian, shell-fishing native community who just happened to be divinely targeted for fateful, extraordinary experiences. What if that pattern isn’t over yet? What if there is yet another precedent-setting legacy for the Pequots, far greater and largely unrealized? Consider the possibility of a legacy lying dormant, extending far beyond the capacity for superficial business development, awaiting today’s Pequot people to revive and engage.
Hidden within the shadows of success and controversy dwells a unique history of unparalleled precedence, rooted within the hearts of Pequot people. Ours is a heritage often overlooked and seldom realized, buried within the earliest archives of American history. And whether we were loved, hated, manipulated, assimilated, shamed or despised, history reveals that the Pequot people have always been precedent-setting agents for change.
It began with the Pilgrims’ arrival at Plymouth Rock. Our Pequot ancestors were one of many New England tribes who experienced seventeenth century “first contact” with English and Dutch settlers rivaling for control of tribal lands and trade routes. Within just a few years, the mounting tension fueled by ethnocentric mindsets, polarizing philosophies, fear, ignorance and mistrust rapidly swelled to a level of epic hostility.
Early one June morning in 1637, the English targeted the Pequots, launching the very first genocidal attack against Native Americans executed within the territory we now recognize as continental U.S. soil, excluding Mexico, Canada and the Caribbean. In less than one hour, English soldiers shot, bayonetted and burned alive about five hundred women, children and elderly Pequots, justifying their horrific acts as ordained by God within the pages of Biblical text.
Propelled by a legacy of revival against the greatest of odds, the few hundred Pequots who survived the massacre struggled to exist beyond the slave trade industry and the menial assignments of indentured servitude to local tribes and colonists. It was those survivors who obtained the very first Indian reservation in North America. Established in 1666 by the Hartford Colony, the Mashantucket Pequot Indian land allotment became a precedent-setting agreement with the Pequots, only thirty years after the colony declared my tribe extinct with the mere swipe of a pen.
Having endured three centuries of disease, genocide, slavery, racism, identity theft, stolen land and the resulting generational trauma of abuse and poverty, my tribe rose once again to a modern-day revival of economic power and wealth. But our contemporary financial success has derailed off course. Like most rags to riches stories, the Mashantucket Pequots’ experiences came with a great price. We now find ourselves coming to grips with painfully humbling lessons of reality checks, grasping for an understanding of what went wrong in light of what could have been.
But believe it or not, there is a silver lining to all of this. We are faced with a new, unique opportunity to salvage what remains and transform failure into productive, forward-thinking action. For it is only when we are willing to take an honest inventory of where we have been, acknowledge responsibility for the consequences of past decisions and embrace a willingness to change that we are fully able to comprehend the magnitude of our situation and clearly recognize our future potential. We can choose to help prevent history-making mistakes from repeating. And doing so requires, first and foremost, our willingness to change a few things about the way we instinctively respond to conflict.
Pequots are very stubborn people. It’s a common trait found deep within generations of survivors like us. Survivors have a tendency to instinctively preserve and protect themselves no matter what it might cost them. But the truth is, we become our own worst enemies when we strive to resist change for reasons of selfishness, envy and greed.
We simply dread change. We resist it whenever we are convinced change will bring about a negative result, forcing us outside of our comfort zones, making us feel unprotected and vulnerable. And when we feel vulnerable, we fear losing stability, equality, opportunity, justice and prosperity. Our fearful motives cause us to live reactively, serving our fears instead of living proactively and embracing our potential.
We need to re-think the way we perceive change, because change can often be a good thing. Change brings an opportunity to rethink the way we’ve managed ourselves, both individually and as a community. When viewed objectively, change can inspire self-discipline as well as the opportunity and courage to selflessly share what wisdom we’ve gained from our experiences with others who may benefit. Because the reality of it is, it’s never really been all about us.
It’s about empowering people with the information necessary to glean wisdom and understanding in the hindsight of unusual, precedent-setting experiences. It’s about leveraging wisdom in order to avoid similar problems in the future. It’s about sharing wisdom with other communities facing similar battles. And most importantly, it’s about encouraging authentic unity within our community, possibly for the first time in more than 375 years.