Who is the richest Indian tribe
Everything here once belonged to his ancestors. They were the rulers between the coast and the woods. They wore leather aprons and had bare chests, including the women. In winter they rubbed bear fat against the cold. They believed that things have a soul. Everything was alive, even the stones, even the skeleton of an animal. They were a tribe of brave warriors. When there weren't any whites here, they would have called him a sachem. Chief.
Today they call Rodney Butler their chairman. Butler is the chief of the Mashantucket Pequots in Connecticut, a small tribe but one of the richest in the United States. From the top floor of his tribe's casino, Butler looks over what remains of the Pequots of the vast lands of their ancestors. He puts his hands on his side and squints in the sun, and below, water flashes from between the treetops of the cedar trees. "It's nice. And so important for us," he says. The reserve is just under seven square kilometers, a fraction of the old hunting grounds. One part is swampy forest, the other part is full of rocks and rubble, agriculture is impossible. "There are reasons why they left us this piece of earth that we can't do much with," says Butler. But still: it is his country, the country of his people.
The reserve is a country within a country. Part of the United States, but a world of its own, recognized by the US government as a separate nation. When you enter the reserve, you cross a border that you can hardly see. The only indication is a sign: "Wuyeepuyôq". That means "Welcome" in the Pequot language. Below the sign says: "Tribal law is enforced here." The Pequots have their own law, their own police and fire departments, and their own courts.
The reserve is a country within a country, with its own police, fire department and courts
The almost 1000 tribal members have an American passport. But they are allowed to do things that other Americans are not allowed to do. They have their own economy and their own government. Butler is at the helm. The 38-year-old wears his black hair neatly groomed with gel and a white, starched shirt, he studied economics and finance. Only the leather pouch with colored beads and fringes around his neck indicates that he is an Indian. It's his medicine bag, a sanctuary, and his way of expressing his identity, he explains. Butler is the head of government, head of the family and chairman of the board of a billion-dollar company. "It's a big responsibility," he says.
This company rises from the swampy reserve: a huge, turquoise-blue patterned casino, mirrored windows, a tower with 30 floors, another with 21, five hotels, 100 poker tables, 6200 one-armed bandits, the largest bingo hall in the world, Concert halls, dozens of restaurants, an ice rink, a helipad. You can get lost in the system, flashing lights everywhere, elevator music is throbbing everywhere. A glass warrior with a bow and arrow is illuminated in neon colors. Foxwoods is the name of the huge complex, after the heraldic animal and nickname of the tribe, The Fox People. Foxwoods was one of the first casinos in the US outside of Las Vegas and Atlantic City. And it's one of the largest in the world. Foxwoods made the tribe rich.
The money changed everything.
In 1986 the Pequots opened a bingo hall, in 1992 gaming tables were added, in 1993 the one-armed bandits, at which Americans by far play the most and lose the most. You have to be at least 21 years old to play here. Most of them are far from 21, white hair and wheelchairs everywhere. The casino has not been closed for a single day since February 1992. Star-eyed people sit in front of flashing machines over colorful carpets around the clock, around the clock new bus loads from Boston or the surrounding small towns drive past the sign that marks the border between the America they know and the reservation. 45,000 guests come every day at the weekend. And bring a lot of money: more than a billion dollars a year. Wuyeepuyôq.
"They wanted to kill us all. They wanted to exterminate us."
The story of unexpected wealth began 40 years ago. In a landmark ruling in 1976, the US Supreme Court ruled that Indian tribes would be exempt from all federal gambling rules that had made it almost impossible for years to open casinos in Puritan America. Today there are 486 Native American gambling establishments. In 2013, the most recent year for which there are official figures, they collected a total of $ 28.5 billion in sales.
Tribes recognized as separate nations by the US government are also exempt from some other laws; they are allowed to sell cigarettes and alcohol cheaper, many tax regulations do not apply. Some reservations also hire out marijuana dealers. The Indians often earn where the whites slow down morale. Unlike in the rest of the United States, you can even smoke in the Foxwoods Casino. Many old people who feed one-armed bandits hold cigarettes and beer in age-stained hands. The air conditioning circulates the air in the hall 20 times an hour.
Most of the other tribes are impoverished. On average, the unemployment rate in the reservations is well above the average in the United States, as are the number of suicides, drug addicts, alcoholics, victims of violence and child mortality. According to the latest popular survey, almost a quarter of the people in the reserves live in poverty, the national average is 14.3 percent. Most of the 4.5 million Indians leave the desolate patches of land.
In his reservation, however, says the young, gelled Chairman Butler, there are no people below the poverty line. Either, he says, people think Indians are impoverished and rotten, or they believe in Indian romance. "You can't imagine we're 21st century humans. People think we live in teepees, hunt and eat bears." Butler laughs long and loud. A broad-shouldered man with a deep voice, he played football in college.
Anyone driving through his reserve sees neat wooden houses. Large cars are parked in the driveways. Inflatable snowmen greet you, fairy lights shine in windows and trees. In the middle of the reserve there is a cultural center with a pool and tennis courts. You have to look carefully to notice that it is not puritan New Englanders who meet here, but those who were there before them: In the entrance hall on the Christmas tree with the colorful electric candles, handcrafted ornaments hang. There, next to penguins and reindeer, there are also a few Indian dreamcatchers and feather ornaments with pearls and leather.
The tribal elders, a council for all over 55-year-olds, meet with the youngest in the common room today. The four-year-old Pequots run around the elders' circular table. Behind it hang a stars and stripes and the flag of the trunk: a fox in front of a tree in a light blue circle. Today the youngest learn from the elders how to knot leather bracelets with four colored beads. One red, one white, one black and one yellow, they stand for the four seasons and cardinal points.
Wayne Reels has his office next door, full of old photos of his dance performances, hand puppets for children's theater, wicker baskets, wood, leather and feathers for his handicrafts and sewing. He bears the title of Director of Cultural Resources and is the man who can best tell about the history and culture of his tribe - and about the blessings and the curse of lots of money.
Little was left of the traditions of the Mashantucket Pequots for a long time. The fact that that has changed is also due to the money, says Reels. Without the casino, which subsidizes its cultural department, there might be no dream catchers, no dances and no wuyeepuyôq today, maybe no one would know what to welcome.
Reels is a burly, brown-skinned man who wears a loose sweatshirt from his favorite football team and blue jeans on a daily basis. Only sometimes does he put on festive clothes. When he and Chairman Butler first got the Mashantucket Pequots flag flying over the Capitol building in Hartford, Connecticut's capital, in November, he wore a turkey-feathered headdress and a proud bear-clawed chain. Even the chairman posed for the photo wearing a red, woven wrap with colored ribbons. "That was an important day for our honor and our healing," says Reels. "After all, they wanted to exterminate us. They wanted to kill us all."
As far as we know today, the Pequots were among the earliest people in New England. When the first Europeans settled here in the early 17th century, they were powerful and feared. They built canoes with space for 80 passengers. After the arrival of the whites, half of them died of smallpox, later the British slaughtered almost all of the survivors. In the Pequot War of 1637 they set fire to a large Pequot village on the Mystic River with Indian supporters. Those who wanted to flee were driven back into the flames. "More than 500 Indians were roasting in the fire and rivers of blood seeped through the stockade," wrote an eyewitness. "The stench was terrible." Those who survived were given away as slaves or servants, the Indians mixed with black slaves or white landlords. There are blonde and blue eyed pequots and others who look like African American today. Once upon a time, hardly anyone knew that Pequots still existed.
"The casino has brought us new opportunities. It has brought homes, education, health, stability. And thanks to the money we have been able to research and cultivate our traditions," says Reels, the cultural officer. "It changed everything. It brought us together and divided us at the same time." The 52-year-old used to be a truck driver. As a child he only came to the reserve now and then, for a picnic or a family party. In the 1970s only one elderly woman lived permanently between the swamps and forests. "For me it was always home and a point of reference, but never a place where I would live," says Reels. At the end of the 1980s everything changed, the casino was supposed to be built, Reels got a job, he cleared rubble. "When I came we were poor," he says. "But for me, life here meant freedom. We were among ourselves, it was so quiet." Lots of people got social assistance back then. There were only dirt roads. Two or three families lived in cramped apartments, some in trailers.
The tribal government, at that time not yet under the financier Butler, simply distributed the first million in casinos to all members. The Pequots got very, very rich. They bought big cars. If the first one no longer liked, they bought the second. More and more people moved to the old country, they built houses, no one squeezed into an apartment with the whole extended family. They sent their children to the best schools and universities - the tribe still pays all tuition fees today. The gamblers subsidized health insurance for everyone, proper roads without potholes, expensive researchers who reconstructed the long-forgotten language from old documents as best they could, and the huge museum a few hundred meters behind the casino in the forest, larger than the Indian Smithsonian in Washington .
But now, 20 years after they built money printing machines on the swampy land, the streak of gambling is over. Other states relaxed the rules, new casinos were built, and more are being added. If you want to gamble today, you no longer have to drive over the country roads to Foxwoods. The Pequots had expanded rapidly just before the economic crisis began and the Americans missed gambling. The casino was $ 2.3 billion in debt, the creditors waived part of it, and now it has debt of $ 1.7 billion on its books. Suddenly the Pequots have to save.
In the best of times, a good decade ago, more than 13,000 people worked for the Indians; today there are only 6,800. Sales are falling year on year. Because Indian tribes are considered sovereign nations, creditors in the reservations cannot seize anything. This makes development expensive and risky and discourages many investors. Even casinos cannot file for bankruptcy in order to get rid of some of their debts. "We think about all sorts of things we can do besides gambling," says Chairman Butler. A few months ago he opened a mall that is now part of Foxwoods. Together with the Mohegans, the Pequots are planning another casino; it should be ready before the MGM group opens a plant in the neighboring state of Massachusetts in 2018.
The direct payments to the tribal members have long been canceled. If you want money, you have to work. For most of them there is a job in the casino. The museum is closed in winter, there are too few visitors. The annual Powwow is also just a small celebration. In the past, the Pequots flown in thousands of Indians from all over the country, all of them singing, dancing and drumming. In his best year, says cultural director Reels, he had a budget of three million dollars, one million alone was advertised as prize money for the best dancers. "We were generous because we knew what hard times feel like," he says. Today only tribes come from the region, he can only spend $ 60,000. "But the mood is better, it's much more intimate, more like a family celebration," he says. "In the past, I sometimes had the feeling that it was all about the money."
Success doesn't just mean that the guests feed the one-armed bandits - more, more and more, says Chairman Butler. "We live here with almost 1,000 cousins, we are all related to one another," he says. "And still successful." Enough money flows in to cultivate the culture, send the children to school, look after the elders and invite them to the dance festival once a year. The tribe is growing, the Fox People haven't been as many in centuries. Butler looks out of the office in the casino over the tops of the cedar trees and over his swampy land, across the border to other America. Thousands of years with the highest highs and lowest lows lie behind the Pequots. "You know," he says, "Native Americans are flexible, we've learned to adapt."
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