Cunning 'Fox People' hit jackpot

The Pequot Indians have grown ridiculously rich exploiting loopholes in US gambling law. John Carlin reports
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The Independent Online
In the spring of 1637, warriors of Connecticut's Pequot tribe killed nine English colonists and kidnapped two English girls. English soldiers responded by razing a Pequot village and slaughtering 700 men, women and children. Nine years later, having crushed the tribe into submission, the English founded a town on Pequot land on the banks of the Great River. They called the town New London, and changed the name of the river to the Thames.

The Pequots took a while to exact revenge, but when they did they served it cold, and in spades. In 1992 they built a casino on their reservation, 10 miles upriver from New London. Today it is the largest casino in the western hemisphere, and the Pequots are as rich as Pharaohs. They are the undisputed masters of the corner of New England their ancestors once ruled. With annual proceeds in excess of $1bn, the casino has not only provided organised entertainment in a densely populated part of America where previously there was none. "The Pequot tribe have become the engine of the economy of south-east Connecticut," says Richard Brown, city manager of New London. "The area was depressed, now it's prosperous again."

The casino employs 12,000 people, many of whom lost their jobs in New London's once flourishing submarine-building business after the end of the Cold War. The reservation employs another 1,000 people, 20 of them in the Pequot police force. Shrewdly, for the Pequots are also known as "the Fox People", and they know from history that a good thing does not last forever, they have decided to expand their business interests. Earlier this month they announced they would be venturing into shipbuilding: by late summer a converted steelyard in New London, on the west bank of the Thames (which in the local pronunciation rhymes with "thanes"), will start production of a high-speed ferry under licence from the designers, an Isle of Wight-based company called FBM Marine Group.

Most of the new jobs the casino has generated are low-paid: security guards, car park attendants, croupiers and fast-food workers. But the Pequots leave that sort of work to the heirs of those who massacred their people three and a half centuries ago. For there are only 350 Pequots still alive, and half of those are under 21. The grown-ups are either enjoying carefree retirements or attending all-expenses-paid courses to equip them with the skills necessary to manage the tribal millions, a fortune built on the 400,000 palefaces who throw away their money at the casino every week.

All of this has come as a pleasant surprise to the newly rich Pequots, most of whom were chopping wood and raising pigs for a living until a decade ago. Many have discovered only relatively recently that they are Pequots at all - in 1974 there were just 55 Pequots on the tribal rolls. In 1983 the US Congress conferred legal status on the tribe, but ruled that to be recognised as a Pequot you had to be able to trace your lineage to a census conducted in 1890 of tribal members living on the reservation. A further limitation was that you had to be able to prove you had at least one-sixteenth of Pequot blood. Few took the trouble to register at first, but the tribal roster has more than doubled since the casino started up four years ago. Only a handful of today's Pequots bear the features classically associated with American Indians. Some have the dark skin and curly black hair of Africans; some the fair hair and blue eyes of northern Europeans.

But if Richard "Skip" Hayward (the tribal chairman), Pedro Johnson and Gary Carter (tribal councillors), and LaToya Young and Christina Montey (teen councillors) are surprised at the bonanza destiny has dealt them, the spirits of the 17th century Pequots who first set sight on the English invaders must wander their ancient hunting grounds in stupefaction.

Towering over the pleasant cedar forests of the reservation is a giant Disney World castle in white and green, surrounded by more asphalt than the parking lot outside the Washington Redskins' football stadium. As for the bingo hall inside, inaugurated by Luciano Pavarotti in August 1994, it is perhaps a shade smaller than the Redskins' pitch, comfortably seating 3,500 people.

The Foxwoods Resort Casino, which includes two large hotels, has 4,364 slot machines and 300 gambling tables occupying 252,000 sq ft; 16 restaurants and fast food "courts"; a disco where on Tuesday nights men and women in cowboy hats engage in Country and Western line dancing; a mock Victorian shopping mall; a "Turbo Ride" cinema with seats that move in sync with the thrills on screen; and a Virtual Adventures centre featuring a game called the Loch Ness Expedition.

Teams of six, sitting in a Starship Enterprise control room, are provided by attendants wearing Star Trek uniforms with yellow-framed glasses specially designed to facilitate navigation of the loch's 3D depths on a $10-a-head mission, complete with heroic musical accompaniment, to rescue Nessie's eggs from enemy submarines and fearsome cartoon dragons.

Umberto Eco, in a book called Travels in Hyper Reality, talks of "the inconsequential wonders" he encounters in American popular culture, the blurring of the lines between game and illusion, the fake and the real. To share in the wonders a place like Foxwoods seeks to generate, to keep the dulling edge of irony at bay, the first and indispensable requirement is a temperament disposed to suspend disbelief.

Without that, Americans would not spend $482bn a year (8 per cent of GNP; six times more than they spend on all spectator sports combined) in gambling; nor would the Pequots feast on the bounty delivered by the entranced thousands who sit on rotating stools in Foxwoods' cavernous Slot Parlours, mechanically feeding coins hour after hour into the poker and fruit machines, oblivious to the jangling pandemonium and the absurdity of the green Peter Pan costumes worn with matching green feathers by the high-heeled waitresses who tour the concourses with trays of drinks. And chips. And hamburgers. And chocolate chip cookies. With food, as with everything else at Foxwoods, bigger is better.

Ask at the American Grill fast food outlet for a cheese steak sub sandwich and the man who serves you will pile mountains of meat on to your bread and then boast, "Bet you can't finish it!" A third of Americans are officially obese, and most of them seem to come to Foxwoods, perhaps explaining why there is a notice at the ticket office for the Turbo Ride which warns, "Maximum weight limit 300lb per person."

This is not Monte Carlo. It's not even Las Vegas, which has a whiff of sin, a smack of danger. This is Middle America, where men turn up in their Sunday worst and women dressed like polyester sausages waddle from the roulette tables to the souvenir shops, dangling transparent plastic handbags.

When a Pequot museum is built next year on a lot adjacent to the casino, gamblers will have an opportunity to shed some pounds on an escalator trip through a glacier complete, as the pamphlet says, "with sounds of cracking ice and the feel of icy air" and a recreated pre-Mayflower Pequot village, where "visitors can experience the sights and sounds of a sunny September afternoon, and even smell food cooking for a village repast". Whereupon look out for the Sumo wrestlers' stampede back to the cheese steak subs. The Pequots know their market.

Much of the method behind the madness comes from the tribal lawyer, Henry Sockbeson, a man who has spent the last 20 years prying open the legal loopholes which have allowed not only his current employers but Indians in 27 other states to transform their ancestral lands into tax- exempt temples of Mammon. "A sailor at heart," as Mr Sockbeson described himself, he has been leading the negotiations to clinch the North American ferry-building franchise for the Pequots. The idea at first will be to use the ferry to bring customers from New York and Boston to the casino.

The boat-building business, said Mr Brown, the city manager, is another example of the phenomenal impact of the tribe on the local economy. Keeping the Pequots alive has not been uppermost in the minds of New England's ruling classes these past 350 years. Until the casinos came along the Pequots had endured at worst systematic oppression and, at best, cruel neglect. Perhaps the ghosts of the 1637 massacre have ceased by now to be stupefied by the bizarre twist history has taken. Perhaps they are laughing so much they are crying.