IMAGINING INDIAN NATIONS: Native American Self-Representation

Article excerpt

Casino and Museum: Representing Mash-antucket Pequot Identity.


Public Native America: Tribal Self-Representation in Museums, Powwows, and Casinos.


The Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation is perhaps the country's most visible American Indian tribe, and one that challenges nearly every stereotype of indigenous authenticity. Resurrected from near extinction by the grandson of one of the tiny Connecticut reservation's last living residents, the group received federal recognition by an act of Congress in 1983.This designation implies a governmental status superior to that of US states and exempts the tribe from a great deal of state taxation and regulation. It also made it possible for them, under subsequent legislation, to open Foxwoods -a gaming enterprise destined to become the largest casino in the Western hemisphere, with annual profits topping one billion dollars (Bodinger de Uriarte).

The flow of cash has allowed the tribe to organize a well-managed, planned society with cradle-to-grave benefits-free housing and daycare, lucrative employment, free private education for children and enormous stipends for advanced study, free healthcare-available to all individuals with any Pequot ancestry (Chappell). Current membership in the tribe that some call "Connecticut's royal family" ("Wampum Wonderland") is about six hundred and fifty (Lawlor).

Criticism of the Mashantucket Pequot has been commensurate with their success. One visible detractor is casino mogul Donald Trump, who offered testimony in 1994 protesting the tribes' competitive advantages in the gaming industry in Congressional hearings. Referring to the fact that the Pequot are a highly intermarried tribe with many members showing obvious, phenotypical relationship to other racial groups-primarily African Americans but also Caucasians (Pasquaretta 104)-Trump informed Congress that "they don't look like Indians to me. They don't look like Indians to Indians" (Trump 242). Yet the Pequots themselves often take such criticisms in stride. As Joey Carter, the tribe's head of public relations once said in interview for Ebony magazine: "You can call us anything you want, but when you call us, call us at the bank" (Chappell 46).

The Pequots' controversial and highly visible presence in the circle of federally acknowledged tribal nations justifies the attention they receive in two recent books. The first is John J. Bodinger de Uriarte's Casino and Museum: Representing Mashantucket Pequot Identity. The author, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Susquehanna University, is fascinated by the twin phenomena of tribal museum and tribal casino as locations that often develop in tandem, and in which Native peoples craft "counterhistories," relating "a different kind of history in a different kind of space" (217). Investigating the Pequot version of such a story and its consequences, Bodinger de Uriarte digs deep into "the poetics of museum spaces and spectacular public displays" at Mashantucket. His goal: to examine the "contested construction and emergence of an 'authentic' 'Indian' subject in discourses that include anthropology, photography, theories of imagining the nation and the creation of tradition, and issues of representational practice, particularly in museum exhibitions" (12).

Casino and Museum analyzes these public display venues as primary sites for the "invention of tradition"-locations in which the Pequots "imagine themselves" as a nation. However, in Bodinger de Uriarte's view, this label does not discredit Pequot identity claims-does not accuse them of distorting truth or making false claims. Rather, it construes their activities as part of the process of nation-building-a process that is similar, for instance, to those that historian Benedict Anderson has described as integral to the emergence of a national consciousness in the United States following the Revolutionary War. …