Pequot Tribe Members Hit the Genetic Jackpot

How native blood paid out for some African Americans


| May-June 1999


If Vincent A. Sebastian Jr. didn't tell you he was Native American, you wouldn't know. He looks African American. In fact, for most of Sebastian's 38 years, he was poor and black, but nowadays he's Indian, too. He's also rich, and one of the 600 or so members of the Mashantucket Pequot of Connecticut.

Sebastian grew up aware of his Pequot (pronounced pee-kwat) ancestry, but never paid it much mind until word spread that the tribe wanted its people, scattered from New England to New Mexico, to come home. "I saw myself, back then, as just black, Afro-American," laughs Sebastian. "Today I consider myself a black, Afro-American Indian."

Why the bizarre racial transformation? Cultural pride and ancestral roots are among the reasons, but some see a one-word answer: money.

To be Pequot is to be part owner of a billion-dollar casino business that guarantees a job, free health care, education, and a housing subsidy—on or off the reservation. Before he was accepted for membership 11 years ago, Sebastian had been living in the Roger Williams Homes public housing complex in south Providence, Rhode Island, driving a tow truck, and doing odd jobs.

Today, he directs the Pequot Office of Youth Services and has a stake in Foxwoods Resort Casino, the world's largest, most successful casino complex. In fiscal 1998, Foxwoods grossed more than $660 million from slot machines alone (plus revenue from card games, roulette, pari-mutuel betting, several hotels, more than 20 restaurants, a shopping mall, and a 1,500-seat theater complex where Bill Cosby, B.B. King, and Celine Dion have appeared).

Sebastian's paternal great-grandfather's tribe membership guaranteed his admission. In 1910 and 1930, the U.S. Census Bureau classified those with "mixed Indian blood" as "Indian." By 1950, those once classified "Indian" were considered "other" or "Negro." Today, in the Pequot case, the names of ancestors must appear on U.S. Census rolls for the Mashantucket reservation in 1900 or 1910. About 600 people apply for membership each year; for every person accepted, a hundred are turned away, according to the Pequot Enrollment Committee.