- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 20, 2003

HITTING THE JACKPOT

By Brett D. Fromson

Atlantic Monthly Press, $24, 256 pages

REVIEWED BY PHILIP BURNHAM

“Hitting the Jackpot” tells a very old story and a very new one. The old one is that most treasured of American fantasies — to strike it rich one day and live happily ever after. The new one concerns a group of people whose good fortune has made them the most unlikely of millionaires, an unruly bunch of nouveau riche “Indians.”

This book is only the latest in a series of investigative exposes of the Mashantucket Pequot tribe of Connecticut. Nothing breeds suspicion like big success, and Brett D. Fromson, a financial journalist with a keen eye for the bottom line, has written a deft and concise account of the commercial rise — and moral fall — of a tribe once thought to be extinct.

Thirty years ago, any self-respecting student of native history would have been hard put to even locate the Pequot. But, in 1975, a savvy man by the name of Richard “Skip” Hayward, perhaps no more than 1/64 Pequot himself, saw a way to pull himself out of a blue-collar dead end by manipulating government policy and playing on public sentiments of “Lo, the poor Indian.”

In short, this is the story of a tribe, almost annihilated in the 17th century, whose distant (and supposed) descendants banded together more than 300 years later to convince first the state of Connecticut, then the Department of Interior and the U.S. Congress, that they were a legitimate tribal entity with sovereign status in matters of negotiating gaming contracts. The rest, as they say, is history.

The author has done his homework. The book draws from interviews with Pequot bigwigs like Hayward and Kenny Reels, as well as rank-and-file tribal members, wealthy business associates, and even former U.S. Senator Lowell Weicker, a reluctant ally in the rebirth of the tribe. Credit Mr. Fromson with having collected a lot of candid remarks (though many unattributed) about the ascent of a meteoric American phenom that almost makes Cornelius Vanderbilt look like a slowpoke on the legendary road to success.

The writing is succinct and informative, and it cultivates something of a staccato Law and Order tempo, taking pains not to venture beyond necessary facts. This is a straight-ahead reporter anxious to nail a story with a minimum of frills and digressions. That makes for both a quicker read and a more slender story.

Mr. Fromson, mind you, isn’t the first to cover this beat. Jeff Benedict’s flashy but flawed “Without Reservation” (2000) and Kim Isaac Eisler’s more sympathetic “Revenge of the Pequots” (2001) have traced, in considerable detail, a story that more resembles a made-for-TV-movie than a tribal genealogy. Since “Hitting the Jackpot” is less pugnacious than the former and more focused than the latter, it’s a useful addition to the literature.

The subtitle, even for a holiday book crowd, is strident: “The Inside Story of the Richest Indian Tribe in History.” The superlative may or may not be true. But as much as one admires the inside story Mr. Fromson has crafted (and there is much of it to admire), what the book doesn’t show is an “outside,” a context for Indian gaming that would reveal just how this account is supposed to be understood.

One wouldn’t know from reading this book whether the rags-to-riches success is common in Indian country (it’s not, contrary to public myth); whether it’s unique (it’s not, given the rise of the Mohegan, barely noted in the book); or whether it’s outside the American zeitgeist at all (it’s certainly not, bearing much in common with the rise of any number of dot.com giants before the ‘90s tech bubble burst.)

“Hitting the Jackpot” is a good case study without much time for analysis. Mr. Fromson writes about family aspirations, greed, political intimidation, and moral weakness, all with professional precision and reserve. Still, the book trades on a trendy subject (Indian gaming) without exploring, even in miniature, the larger consequences of the Pequot “feast.”

One thing that’s undeniable is that the Pequot have become emblematic of what is perceived as an Indian “problem” — by competitors, neighbors, the media, and the public alike. But are the Pequot a fluke — or a sign of things to come? Or neither? Surely some answers, however provisional, could better shape our response to the morality play that Mr. Fromson exposes.

Yes, the Pequot made themselves over — all for the love of money. If anything, this is a Horatio Alger tale for the Age of Corporate Ambition. Though the paradigm for many tribes has been to guard tradition, some of the most successful have found that turning the American way to their advantage has been a more lucrative course. Those who have not acted like “Indians” have disappointed their critics. As one tribal member is quoted by Mr. Fromson, “money is what this tribe is about.”

The Pequot story has all the trappings of an urban legend run amok. The only thing that doesn’t fit about the tale is that it’s true. The Pequot transformation, after all, is in line with the American need to reinvent oneself and prosper. The hardest thing for many of us to swallow is that, against all odds, this motley “tribe” beat the house.

Philip Burnham is a freelance writer in Washington and the author of “So Far from Dixie: Confederates in Yankee Prisons” (Taylor Trade Publishing, 2003).


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