US Indian tribe enjoys the fruits of its 'best windfall since buffalo': The Pequots are bigger than Donald Trump in the world of gambling, writes Patrick Cockburn from Washington

Patrick Cockburn
Monday 20 December 1993 00:02

'THEY DON'T look like Indians to me and they don't look like Indians to Indians,' said Donald Trump in words which led to immediate accusations of racism and bigotry. Mr Trump was attacking the tiny tribe of Mashantucket Pequot Indians in Connecticut whose casino, with profits of dollars 1m ( pounds 675m) a day, has just outgrown his own casinos in Atlantic City to become the largest in the United States.

He said: 'It will be the biggest scandal since Al Capone and it will destroy the gambling industry' if the Pequots and members of the 515 other Indian tribes in the US continue to exploit their status as sovereign nations to start casino gambling. Mr Trump, speaking to a Congressional committee, added: 'It's obvious that organised crime is rampant on the Indian reservations.'

The FBI immediately denied that it had any evidence that the mob was moving into gambling on the reservations. In Connecticut the Governor, Lowell Weicker, who signed the deal whereby the Pequots give dollars 113m a year to his state, sprang to the tribe's defence earlier this month, saying he objected more to Mr Trump than he did to casinos. In a rich exchange of insults he said he had come to a 'fast conclusion that we don't need that dirtbag in Connecticut'.

Mr Trump, denying he had meant to cast a slur on American Indians, said the Governor was 'a fat slob who couldn't get elected dog-catcher in Connecticut'. Mr Weicker admitted that he might have been a little tough in his language but then added: 'I can lose weight a lot faster than a bigot can lose bigotry.'

Envy is the clear motive for Mr Trump's criticism of the 280 Pequots, whose name means 'fox people', and the Foxwood's High Stakes Bingo & Casino enterprise which they own. Strategically placed between Boston and New York, it attracts 40,000 gamblers a day to its 230 gambling tables and 3,150 slot machines. The Pequot tribe which, 10 years ago, lived by growing lettuce and tapping maple syrup in the woods of south-east Connecticut, has become one of the state's biggest employers.

The tribe is not alone. Since Congress sanctioned gambling on Indian reservations in 1988, tribes across the country have seen casinos as their opportunity to escape poverty. 'Indian gaming is the best thing that's happened to our people since the buffalo,' says one tribe leader. Americans spend dollars 600bn a year on gambling and the 1.9 million Indians do not need much of this to make a drastic improvement to their lot.

From the Chippewa of Minnesota to the Seminole of Florida, the tribes are trying to do just that. It was, in fact, a Seminole chief named James Billie, who was also a student of Indian law, who first realised how the Indians could use a Supreme Court ruling in 1976 that their reservations were sovereign nations to move into serious gambling.

Given that tribal reservations were often small in size - the Pequots owned just 178 acres - or were carved out of the badlands, the court decision did not at first seem likely to do the Indians much good. But Chief Billie argued that, as a sovereign nation, the Seminoles could allow gambling, which was forbidden in the state of Florida. In 1979 he offered six-figure jackpot prizes in bingo, and Indian gambling took off.

In Connecticut the Pequot tribe had fallen on even harder times - thanks to a massacre by English settlers in 1637 - and in 1975 the reservation had just one resident, a 78-year-old woman called Elizabeth George. Fearing that, on her death, the State Parks Department would take over her land and the tribe become extinct, she persuaded her grandson, Richard 'Skip' Hayward, to return; he did, with 29 Pequots.

In 1985, tutored by the Seminole, the Pequots opened their first bingo hall. Mr Hayward's task was complicated by the fact that many Pequots had become Jehovah's Witnesses and were doubtful about the ethics of gambling. Backed by Lim GohTong, a Malaysian magnate, the Pequots diversified into blackjack, craps and roulette.

Not all Indians can share in the new prosperity. Gamblers who visit their casinos are middle-class Americans, not high rollers. The Sioux are building a casino in South Dakota but in the Great Plains there are too few gamblers to produce profits of the size made by the Pequot and Seminole tribes. Although 72 tribes have gambling, some reject big-time casinos and stick to bingo.

For the first time in 500 years, membership of an Indian tribe may be a passport to wealth, so the number of Americans claiming to be Indian has risen sharply. Mr Trump is not alone in wondering about the the ethnic origins of some Indians with

Anglo-Saxon names and appearances.

A tribe must be recognised by Washington before it can exercise its rights, but even an unrecognised tribe, such as the Golden Hill Paugussetts of Connecticut, can cause trouble. Encouraged by Pequot success, the Paugussetts have gone to court to claim 84 square miles of the state, including some of its richest suburbs, as tribal land.

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