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The Pequots' Latest Gamble

By Brett D. Fromson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 30, 1998; Page E01


    Algonquian man A detail of a 1645 engraving on display depicting an Algonquian man. (By Allen Phillips)
At first glance, the new Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center in southeastern Connecticut seems like overkill. Not only is it the largest museum in the country devoted to Indian life and history--at 308,000 square feet, it is 20 percent larger than the planned National Museum of the American Indian--but it also focuses exclusively on one tribe, the Pequots. It's tempting to see the place as the self-aggrandizement of a tribe of 550 Indians with too much money, courtesy of their ownership of Foxwoods Resort Casino.

That would be to sell the Pequots short. The same tribe that unexpectedly built the Western Hemisphere's largest betting parlor in Connecticut, a state known traditionally as the "Land of Steady Habits," has surprised yet again. Yes, they have spent a ton of money, but they have spent it to great effect. They have created a museum that largely transcends parochial navel-gazing. The story of the Pequots is a fascinating look into the history of American Indians, non-Indians and New England, and well worth a visit.

The museum, which opened this month in Mashantucket, honors for the first time an Indian tribe's history on a scale equal to the many non-Indian museums and historical reenactments that dot the American cultural landscape. The museum, which cost close to $200 million, is part Colonial Williamsburg, part Holocaust Memorial Museum and part National Museum of Natural History that enobles the tribe's history while mourning its defeat and near annihilation at the hands of America's European ancestors.

The museum has an explicit agenda: to rediscover the history of the Pequots and thereby celebrate and justify the resurrection of a tribe that history books and New Englanders declared extinct a century ago. The museum is also intended to lessen recent tensions between today's Pequots and their non-Indian neighbors who fear the tribe's growing political and economic power in the region--a phenomenon not seen since 1638, when the Puritans defeated the tribe in one of the first and bloodiest Indian wars.

Given the museum's multiple goals, a visitor may wonder if major-museum standards of accuracy and scholarship have been met. It would shock no one if the Pequots retouched history a bit to make themselves more heroic than independent research would suggest. But the tribe, assisted by a small army of scholars, librarians and veteran museum professionals, has made an effort to discover the truth of their roots and present the facts dispassionately. The story, until recently forgotten by most tribal members and the outside world, was unearthed from archaeological digs on the reservation, the diaries of explorers and Colonists, tribal records, government archives and artifacts collected previously by non-Indian institutions.

The Pequots, it turns out, have quite a saga to tell--of war and defeat, loss and dispossession and, most recently, rags to riches.

A dominant force in southern New England when the Colonists arrived at Plymouth in 1620, the Pequots were vanquished 18 years later in a fierce war against the English and rival Indian tribes, stripped of their lands, confined to a hardscrabble reservation that was a snake-infested patch of swamp and rock, and reduced to poverty and subsistence living. In the centuries following the Pequot War, they intermarried with poor blacks, immigrant whites and others at the low end of New England's social hierarchy. Many subsequently moved away from the economically depressed reservation, and the tribe, in search of a better life.

It was not until the early 1970s that a small group of tribal members embarked on a seemingly quixotic attempt to revive the shattered tribe and repopulate the nearly empty reservation. Via smart lawyering and persistent political lobbying, they succeeded in obtaining federal recognition for the tribe in 1983, a move that allowed them to expand the size of their reservation and have greater freedom from state and local governments.

By 1986, the Pequots had used federal recognition to open a profitable high-stakes bingo hall, and in 1992 they hit the jackpot when they started Foxwoods, which has a near monopoly on casino gambling in New England. The only competition comes from the nearby Mohegan tribe, who run the fourth-largest casino in the Western Hemisphere, the Mohegan Sun. Today, Foxwoods has become one of the major tourist destinations in the Northeast, and generates annual revenues of about $1.5 billion for the tribe's members. Spending $193.4 million on a museum is no financial stretch for them.

The museum building spreads easily, like a great bird, over a slope on the edge of a cedar forest. It is sleek, if not handsome, and offers a 185-foot stone and glass tower at one end of the building that allows visitors to survey the tribe's 1,250-acre homeland.

A visit begins in a vast meeting hall whose glass-and-steel ceiling and curved exterior wall are open to the sky and surrounding land. It is a pleasing space, unlike some modernist halls that simply make people feel small.

Diorama, Pequot Museum Exhibitions display a superior level of detail. (By Allen Phillips)
Below the Gathering Space, visitors start by getting a quick review of the contemporary Pequot nation and then travel back in time to the most recent Ice Age via a series of natural history exhibits depicting the region when humans are believed to have first inhabited New England. You descend an escalator through a simulated glacial crevasse, complete with blasts of refrigerated air, recorded creakings from actual icebergs and the drip drip drip of melting ice. There follow several wonderful dioramas, including a stupendous caribou kill, circa 9000 BC, by some Indians--the museum doesn't claim they were Pequots. "Life in a Cold Climate," as this section is called, also includes the biggest and scariest stuffed beaver I have ever seen.

The centerpiece of the museum, however, is a 22,000-square-foot re-creation of a Pequot village as it looked at the time of the European invasion. Dozens of life-size models inhabit the village. It's an "immersion exhibit," meaning visitors can wander at their leisure through the village. The overall effect is quite impressive, enhanced greatly by hundreds of distinct sounds and smells of woodland life. The human figures, cast from the bodies and faces of living American Indians, seem about to spring to life. You feel as if you have stepped back in time to a place you never knew existed.

The exhibits then present in great detail the events leading up to and including the massacre and defeat of the tribe in 1636-38. The massacre at Mystic, only seven miles away, remains the defining event for the Pequots. The tribe does not stint on presenting all sides of the conflict.

Once prepped, the visitor may wish to see a 30-minute docudrama of the massacre. In this fictionalized version, a "Pequot elder" who escaped the massacre retells the story. The movie, unfortunately, sentimentalizes Pequots, oversimplifies the story and, in the end, is oddly unmoving. (Parents, note that the film is quite bloody.)

The "Life on the Reservation" section follows--a survey of the trials and tribulations of the Pequots since the massacre. The exhibits capture the difficult reality of American Indian life in the past 350 years.

But to my mind, there is too little discussion of the non-Indian ancestors of the Pequots of today. For a tribe that many members rejoined only recently and whose members are at most one-eighth Pequot by birth, it is odd that the other branches of the family tree go largely ignored. The Pequots' black and white New England forefathers remain mostly offstage--a regrettable omission, since the intermarriage of Pequots with poor blacks and immigrant whites, the region's other dispossessed groups, is a fascinating part of the story, and one the Pequots must still grapple with even as they celebrate their new-found tribal identity. One can only hope that with time the museum, which is a work in progress, will more directly address the sensitive issues of race, ethnic identity and social class in New England.

For scholars and other students of Indian history, the Pequots are in the process of establishing a serious library. The research center will focus not only on the Pequots but also on American Indians post-19th-century. Its current holdings of 23,000 volumes are slated to increase to 150,000. A children's library offers another 4,000 volumes, and programs on such issues as myths and misconceptions about Indians.

One complaint. The Pequots charge too much for admission--$10 for adults. That could deter visitors--but probably not patrons of the Foxwoods casino, who can use their frequent-gambler points toward admission to the museum.

A final note. The museum is a mere quarter-mile from Foxwoods, which is easy to overlook because the Pequots have left a forest of cedars between the two structures. Don't. To get a complete picture of the Pequots, drop by the casino, if only to see the financial engine that made the museum possible. It is a jaw-dropping expanse of slot machines and table games. You may be appalled. You may find it electrifying. In any event, you will see how the Pequots have been transformed since the arrival of the white man.

The Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center (860-396-6800) is at 110 Pequot Trail, Mashantucket, Conn. Hours: 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily. Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's Day. Admission: adults, $10; children age 6-15, $6; children under age 6, free.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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