The gamble that saved an Indian tribe

A casino kept the Pequot people from extinction. Their museum opened this month.
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The Independent Culture
A 10-FT-HIGH crystal Indian brave kneels under a glass dome at the centre of the Foxwoods Resort Casino in south-eastern Connecticut. Every 15 minutes, the Indian's laser arrow pierces the sky, bringing a deluge of rain. This vast gambling complex, the largest in the western world, has also showered cash on its owners, the Mashantucket Pequot Indians.

The Pequots faced extinction following a devastating war against English settlers in 1637. Only 20 years ago, a handful of surviving members of the tribe were struggling to eke out a living in a caravan site on their Connecticut reservation. But the creation of the casino has transformed them into millionaires. The tribe has now sunk pounds 120m into a lavish museum devoted to a culture that was once almost wiped off the face of the earth.

Built in a wooded reservation seven miles from the port of Mystic (roughly half-way between Boston and New York), the Pequot Museum is the largest museum of Native American culture in the United States. Directors of other institutions looked on with envy as the Pequots used a blank cheque to construct a vast exhibition and research centre.

Money spilling from the slot machines and roulette tables of the casino owned by the tribe has allowed the Pequots to tell their own story of war, near-extermination and belated resurrection. The museum presents a more complex version of life in an Indian settlement than the old stereotype of Native Americans as marauding "savages", or their more recent image as early, nature-loving hippies.

At the heart of the museum is an impressive recreation of a Pequot village as it looked on a summer afternoon in 1550, just before the Europeans arrived. Women feed babies and weave baskets beside the wigwams, men fish from a dugout canoe and a child chases a dog. The smell of camp fires mingles with that of tanning hides and the sound of squawking crows in the cornfield.

If the 51 life-size figures look strikingly real, it is because they were cast from the bodies of Native American models.

The traditional clothing, ornaments and utensils shown were also made by native craftspeople.

By the early 17th century, the Pequots had around 8,000 members and were one of the most influential tribes on the East Coast. Contacts between the tribe and European settlers initially revolved around trade in furs and "wampum" jewellery made from shell beads. But thousands of other Pequots died because of the smallpox virus brought by the English and the Dutch.

On the other hand, from the outset the Puritan clergy considered the Indians to be devil-worshipping witches; Pequots are reported to have tortured, flayed and roasted their captives. In 1637 English militiamen, backed by other local tribes, surrounded a Pequot fortified village and set fire to it. Many men, women and children were burned to death. Prisoners were beheaded or sent into slavery. A leader of the raid declared: "We had sufficient light from the word of God for our proceedings."

The massacre opened the Connecticut coast to European settlers, with only a handful of dispossessed Pequot survivors. By 1970, only two elderly Pequot women remained on the Mashantucket reservation. Hearing a rumour that the state was going to seize the land for a park, Elizabeth George Plouffe raised a cry for help from her extended family.

A few hundred people who can trace their ancestry back to a 1910 Pequot census returned to the reservation. They tried to make a living from manufacturing maple syrup and growing garden vegetables. The museum includes a typical trailer home from the Seventies, complete with a dented kettle on the stove.

In 1986, the tribe opened a bingo hall, followed in 1992 by the building of the first phase of the Foxwoods Resort Casino. That kitsch pleasure palace has now generated enough profits to finance a museum and research centre that are likely to become a beacon for anyone interested in Native American culture.

The Pequots are well aware that the victor writes the history. In this case, it just took a little time.

The Pequot Museum and Research Centre (001 860 396 6800) opens daily. The best gateways are New York and Boston. In September, fares through discount agents are around pounds 260.