Connecticut's Mashantucket Pequot tribe has been around for 400 years, but the ravages of time and conquest have reduced the formerly powerful tribe to less than a thousand members who formerly eked out a living by farming.
Gambling has changed all that, reports Reuters in an interesting study of the tribe in today's environment, where tribe members receive a share of gambling revenues that has been estimated in some quarters to be as high as six figures a year per individual.
The source of this largesse is Foxwoods, arguably the biggest land casino in North America, which recently celebrated the opening of the MGM Grand tower, a $700 million extension to the tribe's gambling interests. The new 30-storey MGM Grand adds 1 400 slot machines to Foxwoods' existing 7 200, as well as restaurants with celebrity chefs, a luxurious spa and a 4 000-seat theatre.
Indian casinos raked in gross revenues of more than $27 billion across the United States last year.
Mashantucket Pequot members, about half of whom are under 18, receive payments from the casino profits.
But it is not only the tribe that benefits from the success of Foxwoods – the Mashantucket Pequots have given about $2.6 billion to the state of Connecticut – 25 percent of slot revenues. Last year it paid $200 million to the state, although as a sovereign nation, the tribe is not required to pay taxes or to make public its financial reports.
Rodney Butler, the treasurer of the tribal council, told Reuters that much of the profit is reinvested in the business and used to fund community services. He declined to say how much each tribe member receives in annual payments.
Butler hails from the neighbouring Mohegan lands, which host the rival Mohegan Sun casino, and says his [Mohegan] tribe's members each receive about $28 000 a year as a share of the profits. The casino employs 10 000 people directly and it accounts for another 30 000 jobs in the region. "It brought people back to the reservation, having that economic engine," Butler says.
The Mohegans, arch enemies of the Pequots back in the 17th century, now enjoy a friendly cross-town rivalry with their neighbours, who are rumoured to get six-figure payments as a result of there being fewer tribe members.
The Mohegans have used casino profits to renovate a tribal burial ground and a park on the site of a Mohegan fort and to improve infrastructure. Low-cost housing and a retirement home have also been built for older tribe members.
The Reuters report reveals that of the 562 federally recognised indigenous tribes in the USA, roughly 225 tribes in 28 states are engaged in gaming, according to the National Indian Gaming Association. Only about a quarter of the gaming tribes distribute per capita payments.
According to a report on the Indian gaming industry by Alan Meister, an economist with Analysis Group, Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun generated combined annual gambling revenues of about $2.5 billion in 2006. That compares with $12.6 billion a year for all commercial casinos in Nevada, home of Las Vegas.