Today is the day of Thanksgiving, or so I am told. I am laying in a big, comfortable hotel bed, just one of many bodies greeting this national holiday from the inside of Foxwoods Resort Casino. It feels ironic to me that this is where I am on today of all days, five floors up from a casino that took my money last night (the fastest $20 I have ever lost) and the Hard Rock Cafe which served us a heap of nachos that could have fed a family of five.
But this is what we came here for. No, not the gambling (staying here was out of convenience), but to confront what we consider normal.
Yesterday was shaped by my introduction to the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe of Connecticut. This reservation is one of the oldest, continuously occupied Indian reservations in North America. Of course, continuous does not mean without political, social and economic disrupt.
For over 10,000 years, native people have occupied Mashantucket in Southeastern Connecticut. In the early 17th century, prior to the arrival of European settlers, there were around 8,000 members inhabiting over 250 square miles.
From 1636-1638, the Pequot War took place; it was the first major battle between colonists and indigenous New England people. Quickly after, the Pequot population decreased dramatically as did the amount of land the Tribe was granted to live on. The influx of immigrants, illegal land sales, and politics of a new nation ripped away what belonged to these people for so many generations before.
In the early 1970s, tribal members began moving back to the Mashantucket Pequot Reservation. In the following decades, they fought for the rights to their land and in 1983 the U.S. Congress enacted the Mashantucket Pequot Indian Land Claims Settlement Act.
There are about 1000 tribe members now; the vast majority of them live on the reservation.
Yesterday we visited the the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center, opened in 1998. It is impressive, engaging, artistic, and educational (as the best museums are), taking you from the ice age to today’s Pequot people.
At the museum we met with Clifford Sebastian, a handsome, well-spoken and proud member of the Pequot Tribe.
Sebastian grew up on the reservation. He attended school in New York, but quickly returned after graduating and now works as the marketing and development associate for the Museum and Research Center.
“Growing up in New England myself, [I recognize] that the beginning and end of Native American culture starts with Thanksgiving, disappears for hundreds of years, and then ends with having casinos… That part is definitely a stereotype. You will find that people around here, whether they are federally recognized like the people here, state-recognized like other tribes in this area, or not recognized at all, you will still find people who are still participating in their culture and still have a strong sense of cultural identity. But the fact that they are also still Americans and still a part of this culture means that it is very easy to wind up blending it.”
In September, Sebastian, along with co-workers and fellow Tribe members, headed to Standing Rock to stand in solidarity with the water protectors.
“We packed up two vans and drove out. It was a 30 hour drive. And then spent several days out there with the people there. We had a chance to meet with them, had a chance to commiserate with them, had a chance to drop off our supplies, find out exactly what was going on,” Sebastian told us.
He stressed the importance of knowing people personally in order to stay informed about what is actually happening at Standing Rock and what supplies are needed. Based off of the many citizens with camera phones and independent journalists who are reporting from North Dakota, we know that the media is not covering this event with fairness or accuracy. “So much of this had to do with being able to communicate and being able to get information back and forth,” he said.
“[Going out there] made me much more optimistic. It is very easy to get weighed down that this is an unwinnable fight and something that has been going on for hundreds of years and still it is going on. It can seem very insurmountable when you have a couple hundred people versus an entire country. But then when you get out there, you see hundreds and hundreds of tribes and you can see thousands of people out there all working towards one common goal.”
While there are some similarities, it is important to remember that Native American culture, as any other race, is localized; there are hundreds of federally recognized tribes and there were thousands of tribes before genocide was committed. The tribes who live on the plains live in different types of homes and eat a different diet. Their language is different, folklore varies, and historical narratives are comprised of different memories.
With those differences noticed, it is understood that tribe members all over this country have an innate understanding of land rights and water rights, developed far before America as we know it existed. Their fight, which is all of our fight, is not about political gain. This is about survival. This is about protecting our environment so our physical self, our beloved bodies, can continue to exist.
I asked Sebastian about the Mashantucket Pequot’s relationship to the tribes in North Dakota. “That is one thing about the southeast woodlands, this area, everyone is pretty much unanimously in support of the protectors trying to keep this pipeline from being put in the ground. A good deal of that comes from the fact that we have our own smaller versions of that, we may be trying to resist some sort of pipeline, some sort of disastrous change to our ecology in the name of business.”
So what can you do to help? How can you stand in solidarity with Standing Rock?
If you can go, go! If you can donate money, donate! If you don’t have money to donate, but you have supplies, send them! Contact your politicians! But, most importantly, said best by Sebastian, “Talk about it, keep it in the front of your mind and don’t forget about it. Do not let this go. Really follow up on this. Discuss it. Get involved and stay involved until this is over.”