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Tribe gives donation for Indian museum

Published Oct. 8, 2005

The Mashantucket Pequot tribe, whose 2-year-old Connecticut casino is the largest in North America, donated $10-million Monday to the planned National Museum of the American Indian. The gift is the largest single cash contribution in the Smithsonian Institution's 148-year history.

"Ours is a small tribe, but we have a keen sense of our own history and that of Native America generally," said Richard A. Hayward, the chairman of the Pequots, at a press conference at the Smithsonian. "There have been many historic injustices perpetrated on indigenous people of North America, including the slaughter of the Pequots in 1637. But we have survived, and we now flourish."

The 230-member tribe's first gaming ventures did not begin until the mid-1980s, but they already have financed a series of sizable donations, including $500,000 to the Democratic National Committee and $2-million to next year's Special Olympics World Games. The Pequot casino reportedly earns profits of $600-million a year.

The American Indian Museum eventually will consist of three complexes devoted to exhibition, research and preservation of Native American culture: the main museum near the Air and Space Museum on the Mall, for which construction is to begin in 1996 with a 2001 completion date; the restored U.S. Custom House in New York, which opens Sunday; and a cultural resource center in Suitland, which is scheduled to open in 1997. That building, expected to cost around $50-million, largely will be paid for by the federal government.

The bulk of the contents of all three museums will come from the 1-million objects collected by George Gustav Heye, a New York banker who founded the former Museum of the American Indian in New York. The Smithsonian obtained the collection, considered one of the finest in the world, in June 1990. Since then, most of it has remained in storage.

The Pequot donation brings the amount raised by the museum's national campaign to $31-million, more than half of its overall $60-million goal. Congress has mandated that the Smithsonian raise one-third of the construction costs, which the museum has estimated at $110-million, and of the $31-million it has raised, $27-million is earmarked for the construction. The rest will go toward an endowment.

Monday's donation immediately was hailed as a milestone.

"This is an enormously important gift. Ten-million dollars is real money," said Peter Johnson, an associate of David Rockefeller Sr., a member of the museum's board of trustees. Johnson said that Rockefeller, who gave $1-million to the capital campaign, was "ecstatic" about the donation. "Not that the national campaign was in trouble, but you always look for a large gift. It gives the campaign a visibility and a capability that may have not been there before. It has enormous consequences for the museum."

Pequot officials look at the casino as a way to free themselves from government dependency and to reclaim their heritage. The pledge to the Smithsonian seems certain to increase the visibility and influence of the small tribe.

Despite that, Hayward, Pequot chairman, spoke of gambling Monday with some ambivalence. "I've got to tell you we tried just about everything you could imagine to develop economic enterprise on the reservation," he said. "We didn't choose gaming because that's what we wanted to do. We chose gaming because it was the only way we could get money without going out and holding up banks."

The history of the Mashantucket Pequots is one of America's ugliest chapters. Until the mid-1600s, it was one of the most powerful tribes in New England. Then, after a series of conflicts with English settlers and intense rivalries with other tribes, the Pequots virtually were wiped out by an alliance of English and Indians in a 1637 massacre. More than three centuries of struggle followed for the survivors, until by the 1970s only one woman lived on the Connecticut reservation, which had been whittled down from 2,000 acres to 178 through neglect and theft. Hayward, who became chairman in 1975, sued to get the land back and, aided by laws and court decisions, began to regain the lost land. In 1987, the Supreme Court ruled that liberated tribes, as sovereign nations, could run casinos on their own land, and the Pequot are one of nearly 100 tribes to do so.

The development of the museum, authorized by Congress in 1989, has been marked by an extraordinary degree of consultation between planners and subjects. Since 1990, 22 meetings have been staged between museum officials and leaders of various tribes.

"We have all the way along consulted with native peoples about precisely what their expectations are about this institution," said W. Richard West Jr., the museum's director. The statement was an indirect reference to the political skirmishes that have surrounded the development of a World War II exhibition at the National Air and Space Museum. And West indicated that the museum was working to head off any such troubles. Picking a single example, he said, "It is fair to say, to the extent that if we are ever in a position of interpreting on our museum gallery floors or in our associated public programs, the history, art and culture of the Pequot people of Connecticut, we would naturally be in contact with them."

The museum's relationship with the Pequot may be extended through ties with the tribe's own planned museum and research center. This $130-million reservation facility is scheduled to be completed in late 1997. "They will have many of the same technological capacities that are very compatible with our own facilities," said West. "There will definitely be a programmatic relationship."

Up to now the largest single donations to the Smithsonian have been the original endowment of 100,000 gold sovereigns from James Smithson, valued at $500,000 in 1838, and $7-million given to the museum's Jazz Heritage programs by the Lila Wallace/Reader's Digest Fund in 1992.