The tribe that finally hit the jackpot

Instead of tracking wolves in the greenwoods of Connecticut, the braves are scalping palefaces across the green baize to the tune of $100m profit a year
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The Independent Online
We all thought we had heard the last of the Mohicans, but the famous Indian tribe is riding the range again. Today the Mohicans, reborn, have found a new vocation.

Instead of tracking wolves in the greenwoods of Connecticut, the braves are scalping the palefaces across the green baize - to the tune of $100m profit a year. It is a success story as unexpected as it is romantic.

"Before the night has come, have I lived to see the last warrior of the wise race of the Mohicans," lamented James Fenimore Cooper in his stirring story of 1826. This fine phrase, which passed into modern folklore, no longer holds true.

Before the night has come, a thousand twinkling lights will be gleaming around the dome of the tribe's hi-tech casino. They shine down on thousands of tense, eager faces along the rows of slot machines and blackjack tables.

For the Mohegans (modern spelling) are alive and well and running their own casino. The Mohegan Sun, buzzing with excited gamblers, old and young, is only two hours 20 minutes' drive from New York. It is attracting between 20,000 and 25,000 visitors a day and expanding fast.

In its first year of operation since opening last October, the casino's gross revenue is likely to reach $350m (estimates vary). "That yields a 30 per cent profit, but we hope to raise the figure to 32 per cent or 33 per cent next year," says executive vice president Bill Velardo. Financial backing has come from a surprising source, Sol Kerzner, creator of Sun City in South Africa.

Kerzner, now out of South Africa, is a controversial figure. "All work and a lot of play makes money," is his motto. His group runs several tropical resorts, notably Paradise Island in the Bahamas, which was for years a dead end. His aim is to "blow away the customer" - dazzle him with entertainment value.

On the strength of a handshake with the tribal leader, a partnership called Trading Cove Associates was set up to develop and manage the casino, and Kerzner put his "can do" policy into high gear. He helped the tribe float a $175m bond on Wall Street, and provided pounds 90m in investment and $40 in equipment financing. The Mohegan Sun was up and running within a year of construction.

In return, Sun International Hotels receives a 40 per cent share of the profits over the next seven years. This might seem a large chunk, but the tribal leadership is content. "If they're getting $400m, that means we are making a billion," says tribal chairman, Roland Harris.

Kerzner was finally granted a gaming licence in Connecticut in July 1996. The casino opened three months later.

A huge white dome, like a gigantic flying saucer, the building was formerly a factory for nuclear reactor components. Hidden below the main highway, the casino sits astride the reservation in a green valley overlooking the Thames river. It is big - 600,000 square feet with 2,700 slot machines and 180 gaming tables.

Built to a circular (wigwam) design, the casino has a woodsy, outdoors feel about it, thanks to decorative use of timber and water and Indian motifs. The gambling floor is divided into four sections portraying spring, summer, autumn and winter, highlighting seasonal changes in Mohegan life. The whole structure, in the architect David Rockwell's formula, strives to combine nature with theatricality. One aspect of this is slot-machine games with names such as Cash Canoe and Mohegan Money Tree.

How does the remnant of a small tribe, long languishing in the backwoods of Connecticut, set about operating a modern casino? Answer: by joining forces with the paleface invaders. Top management has been hired from the American gaming industry.

As often happens with economic success, some opposition has been aroused. But the strength of feeling is less in the local community - the 5,000 full-time jobs in the enterprise were applied for many times over - than among the Mohegans' native American rivals, the Mashantucket Pequot. Ten miles down the road in the greenwoods lies the reservation of the Pequot tribe, the fox people. Foxwoods has established itself as the biggest and most profitable casino resort in the United States. Relations between the two tribes, in diplomatic parlance, are correct rather than cordial.

Their rivalry goes back a long way. The early Mohicans, known as the wolf people, attracted by the hunting and shellfish along the coast, became known as "invaders" to other tribes. But the English invasion was far more threatening. The pilgrims' ship was described as an animal with wings - "when it spoke it made a noise like thunder and smoke and fire came out of its mouth and it would swallow all the Indians up."

Around 1635, in the quarrel between the tribes over whether to resist or placate the European invaders, the Mohicans and the Pequots split. Uncas, leader of the Mohicans, sought to co-operate with the colonists and managed to preserve a measure of independence for his own people. The Pequots were massacred.

Now their tribal rivalry is being played out in a new form, in casino gambling. Foxwoods has proved such a gigantic success that it is out-performing even the glitzy palaces of Las Vegas. In comparison, the Mohegan Sun is a mere cub. "We think the two properties will support each other," says Velardo. "There is room for both of us to grow."

It is odd to find two such glittery money-making enterprises almost side by side, dividing the same rural patch of south-eastern Connecticut. Their success is founded on a simple fact of geography: 22 million people live within a radius of 150 miles.

Where do the Mohegans go from here? A mile outside the casino, on a little hill, stands the tribal museum. This is no more than a wooden hut but an extraordinary place, not least for the presence of Gladys Tantaquideon, a sprightly 98-year-old. She is described as the tribe's medicine woman, a living repository of wisdom and tradition. She greets visitors to the museum, which is a jumble of mementoes, documents, old photos, feathers, tomahawks, utensils and many other curiosities, every day.

"This is home," says Jane Fawcett, simply but with great feeling. As vice-chairman of the tribal council, she has lived in the house next door all her life. She is far more involved with the culture of the Mohegans than the operation of the casino, though it is the latter that funds the health, education and welfare of her people.

Gladys Tantaquideon knows how to make a cordial from forest herbs and is wise in many precepts of nature, such as that when dogwoods blooms it is time to fish for shad. But her importance to the tribe is far greater than merely recalling folklore. Her collection of documents and records, including hundreds of postcards from Mohegan people, played a decisive role in establishing the continuity of the tribe, in securing federal recognition in 1994.

The Mohicans are here to stay.

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