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American Quarterly 57.1 (2005) 153-177

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Identity in Mashantucket

Experience the wonder of the Connecticut woods," says the soothing voice in an advertisement on New York City's channel four. A dense forest fills the screen and is then revealed as the view from a hotel window. A woman reclines on a plush chair, gazing at the trees. It's hard to tell just what's being advertised—real estate, a hotel chain? The scene shifts to a busy, public space. Bright lights flicker in the background while elegantly dressed people gather beside a gaming table. The ad is for Foxwoods Resort Casino. It promises a tasteful environment for gaming, amid the peace and quiet of the Connecticut woods. In the final image small text identifies the proprietor as the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation.

Located near the village of Ledyard in southeastern Connecticut, the Mashantucket Pequot reservation extends over 1,250 acres of thickly wooded terrain and is home to some 650 people. The Pequots' casino business has been a phenomenal success since the day it opened in 1992. Building on the tribe's highly profitable bingo operation that began in 1986, Foxwoods has made the Pequots wealthy beyond anyone's expectations.1 As a Native American institution, however, it has been the site of much controversy and a favorite case for debates about the propriety and ethics of commercial gambling on Indian reservations across the United States.

By examining Foxwoods and the more recently opened Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center as vehicles of intentional as well as inadvertent public representation, this essay shows how Pequot (and, more generally, Native American) public identity is being renegotiated in the context of overtly capitalist enterprises and the accumulation of wealth. By "public identity," I mean here articulations of collective worldviews, experiences, and practices that the Mashantucket Pequots and other tribes project for the largely non-Native audiences visiting their reservations. I will argue that this public identity is produced from competing self-representations that emerge in the interfaces where the Pequots meet their off-reservation visitors and interlocutors. Simultaneously emphasizing the distinctiveness of contemporary Pequot cultural foundations and the connectedness of the tribe to the economic and [End Page 153] social flows of larger national and global circuits, Pequot self-displays articulate recognizably postmodern modalities.

My argument investigates how both the casino and the museum manifest the tribe's tendency to accept stark contrasts in its public self-representations. For reasons I trust will become clear, the obvious discordances work as effective strategies for solidifying productive relations with the Pequots' neighbors, and, however paradoxical it may appear at this point, for simultaneously increasing the viability of cultural identity within the tribal collective. I should state my position at the outset that the Mashantucket Pequots have a culturally as well as legally legitimate claim to the term tribe, defined as a group of people who share descent from indigenous residents of a particular homeland. I am also convinced that Foxwoods is a constructive, worthwhile enterprise, since its financial sponsorship has helped significantly to revitalize the Pequot tribe.

Since the passage of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) in 1988, at least 377 tribal gaming operations have been established through contracts between tribes and state governments. Evolving in the wake of the 1979 federal case that reconfirmed the Seminole tribe's sovereignty over its own bingo operations and of the 1987 Supreme Court ruling in California v. Cabazon Band of Mission Indians, which secured tribes' rights to operate without external regulation games that were already legal in a given state, the IGRA was intended to promote tribal economic development and to protect tribes from the hands of organized crime.2 In some cases, but by no means all, the gambling operations that have opened under the auspices of IGRA have been quite successful: in 2002, they earned $14.5 billion.3 A few native casinos have had the singular effect of drawing their tribal communities out of the deep poverty that has characterized reservation life from the beginning.4 The IGRA stipulates that federally recognized Native American...


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