Pequot Tribe Members Hit the Genetic Jackpot

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.

Clifford Sebastian III, Vincent Sebastian’s granduncle, doesn’t hide his amusement about the rush to join his tribe. Born on the reservation, Sebastian, 71, returned there to retire long before the tribe hit it big. “We get people who look up books and write down things that try to prove that they are Indian. They didn’t come forward when we didn’t have anything. They’re coming forward now, though. Now most of the people in the area are trying to prove they was Pequot, black and white. That dollar sign catches a lot of eyes, and a lot of people that once wouldn’t dare admit that they had Indian blood in ’em is now coming forward,” he says, roaring with laughter.

Tribal officials won’t release details about the tribe’s composition, including how many members have African American heritage. Defeated by Europeans in the 1600s, the Pequot lost their lands and were driven onto the Mashantucket reservation. Unable to make a living on the “rez,” some left for nearby cities, where they were excluded by whites but accepted among African Americans.

By 1970, only two Pequot lived on tribal lands. One was Elizabeth George, the grandmother of former Pequot tribal chairman Richard “Skip” Hayward, 51, who was the Foxwoods casino mastermind. Local whites had begun to speak about the tribe in the past tense, but reports of its demise were premature.

In the 1960s and 1970s, many Native Americans began to identify more with their culture and tribal homelands. Dozens of Pequot returned from cities determined to restore their tribe and make the most of the semi-independent status Indian nations hammered out with the U.S. government more than 160 years ago.

“The first thing we have to do is move people back to the reservation,” Hayward said in 1975, the year he became tribal chairman. “We can’t have people spread out all over the country. If we are going to be a tribe, people have to be here.”

In 1983, just months before Connecticut was to declare them extinct and confiscate their lands, Congress granted them federal recognition. Like other tribes, the Pequot tried farming and other industries. But frustrated by their lack of success and eager for quick economic development, they turned to gambling. Now the Pequot employ more than 11,000 people, half of whom are white. But that doesn’t stop resentment of the tribe’s wealth and power. And many question their racial authenticity.

“Locals do say, you know, that they aren’t really Indians, that they are black and whatever. But I guess they, and the federal government, have their rules as to what is and is not an Indian,” says Wesley J. Johnson Sr., mayor of Ledyard, Connecticut, where the reservation is located.

John Perry, the Pequot fire chief, says if outsiders use skin color to decide, they will fail. “If you look at the Pequot today you are going to see light-skinned ones, you are going to see dark-skinned ones,” he says. “Some are going to look white, some black, but we’re all related.”

Yet there is a glaring absence of black-skinned faces in the official Pequot materials–in a brief tribal history compiled by the public relations department, for example–and even in television ads for Foxwoods. The subject elicits stony, uncomfortable silence from many Pequot.

For the past 24 years, the tribe’s public face has been its white-skinned former tribal chairman, Hayward, whose Indian ancestors intermarried with whites. The new chairman is Kenneth M. Reels, described in The Day newspaper of New London, Connecticut, as being of Mashantucket Pequot, Narragansett, Portuguese, and African American descent. Reels, 38, grew up in Rhode Island, one of 18 children in a family living on welfare. He currently owns a golf course, a real estate firm, two apartment complexes, an office building, a self-service laundry, and a waterfront home. Last year, Reels attended a minority business expo and NAACP dinners, and addressed the first Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. community dialogue. Despite his openness, many in the tribe don’t want to harm their bottom line by broaching the ugly subject of race.

Elder Clifford Sebastian is not one of them. “A lot of us who appear like we marry out too far, we are marrying back in to make the blood stronger,” he says.

Relatively new Pequot member Valerie Burgess agrees, though she seems torn. She’s married to a man of African American and Cherokee heritage but says she would encourage her son to marry an Indian for the sake of the tribe. But others, such as elder John Perry, say the tribe cannot mandate whom people should love. “In this modern time, it is going to be kind of hard to have a pure Indian race,” he says, although talk of racial purity does obsess some Pequot.

Instead of trying to “improve the blood,” Vincent Sebastian says, members must learn what they can about Indian language and culture. After 11 years as a full-fledged Indian, he is likely to be found at a powwow dressed in full Indian regalia, drumming or taking part in a traditional dance. “I don’t speak the language,” he says. “But I’m getting into the culture now.”

The Pequot have embarked on several high-profile cultural projects: a $193 million Indian museum on their reservation, a $10 million donation to the National Museum of the American Indian in New York, and millions of dollars worth of Indian art displayed in casinos and hotels. They also sponsor, each September, the Feast of Green Corn and Dance, which draws upwards of 50,000 Indians from more than 500 tribes across the United States and Canada and offers the best performers nearly $1 million in prize money.

These efforts have not made the Pequot popular with long-established tribes, says Arlene Hirschfelder, co-author of The Native American Almanac (Macmillan, 1999). “There are Native American people who react to tribal groups who’ve intermarried with blacks,” says Hirschfelder, a lecturer at New York’s New School for Social Research. “They’re criticized for not having their language and traditions. They see them as people without a culture. I look at it as these Pequot people are trying to relearn who they are.”

“I don’t think you can relearn being Indian if it was lost,” says Carrie Braine, 41, a Northern Cheyenne tribal council member from Lame Deer, Montana. “Many Indian people, especially those out West, believe that a ‘real Indian’ must have dark brown hair, dark eyes–you know the stereotype–and must not be too dark or too light. What I think matters is if you know your history, if you have a sense of your traditions, a sense of your religion.”

Studies since the 1920s have shown that 30 to 70 percent of African Americans surveyed claim Indian ancestry. Quintard Taylor, professor of history at the University of Oregon at Eugene, says so-called “black Indians” once were afraid to challenge traditional racial classifications. “Today, the move toward multiculturalism and a growing acceptance of biracialism has opened this whole issue up,” he says. “People who once wouldn’t have been comfortable identifying themselves as ‘black Indians’ are now willing.” Entertainers Tina Turner and Lena Horne are among those who have long claimed their Indian blood.

Whether others like it or not, the Pequot refuse to apologize for their good fortune. The tribe recently opened a Washington office on Pennsylvania Avenue, periodically uses high-powered lobbyists to protect its interests, and, according to the Federal Election Commission, between 1992 and October 1998 contributed $890,625 to the Democratic National Committee and $540,000 to the Republican National Committee. From black and poor to Indian and rich, the lost-and-found Pequot like Vinny Sebastian have come a long way. As he says, “Being given the right, or the inheritance, to the name of the Pequot is surely a blessing.”

Leslie Goffe is a New York based journalist for BBC radio. From Emerge (Feb. 1999). Subscriptions: $18.95/yr. (10 issues) from Box 7126, Red Oak, IA 51591-0127.

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