The Pequot Museum and Research Center

Iconic Communities, On the Road, Travel Destinations
on November 24, 2002

Long before Europeans arrived, the Pequot Nation inhabited southeastern Connecticut. Yet so vivid is Connecticut’s Colonial past it’s possible to miss its rich American Indian heritage, even though it lives on in so many names—towns such as Pawcatuck and Mystic (the latter from Mistuket, for great river), and the state itself, Quinnehtukut (beside the long tidal river). But today, a remarkable museum in Mashantucket (much-wooded place) brings that heritage home.

The Pequot (pronounced “peekwhat”) Museum and Research Center opened in 1998 and quickly earned the praise of the Smithsonian Institution. William Sturtevant, curator of ethnology at the Smithsonian, calls it “the best exhibit of North American Indian materials in the Northeast, and among the very best anthropological museum exhibits anywhere.” The museum is owned by the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, a community in its own right, today numbering about 1,000.

Among the museum’s exhibits is a re-created 16th-century village of the Pequot tribe—51 life-size figures cooking at campfires, taking care of children, and making tools. So real is this multi-sensory exhibit, visitors smell cooking and hear forest noises. In other dioramas, hunters from 11,000 years ago stalk caribou or shiver on a glacier where water drips and wind howls.

“The museum was a vision and a mission of our tribe—it was always in our heart,” says Theresa Hayward Bell, executive director of Mashantucket’s museum since 1994, when construction began. “We wanted a special place to house the histories of many tribes, not just our own.”

A program of more than 100 cultural events is held each year, including demonstrations of such American Indian crafts as bone carving and pottery making, lectures by visiting scholars on history and folklore, Boy and Girl Scout activities, and American Indian storytelling. Archeology walks and concerts by American Indian musicians are held each summer. Singer and songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie, a Cree, and singer Rita Coolidge, a Cherokee, have performed here.

An active archeology program is under way, notes Dr. Kevin McBride, the museum’s director of research and an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Connecticut. Sites as old as 9000 B.C. and as recent as 19th-century settlements are studied, and efforts to locate American Indian coastal villages are being conducted with the Mystic Aquarium & Institute of Exploration.

Four hundred years ago, southeast Connecticut was home to about 20,000 American Indians, including the Pequot and Mohegan tribes. But by the early 1970s, only Elizabeth George and her sister remained on the Mashantucket reservation, whose original 3,000 acres—granted in 1666—had dwindled to 213.

When George’s grandson, Richard “Skip” Hayward, was elected tribal leader in 1975, he sought to bring members back to Mashantucket, but with only two houses on tribal land, no electricity, water, or roads, and no businesses, it was slow going. Still, some began to return—many of them nieces, nephews, and grandchildren of Elizabeth George.

A boost came for the Pequot when 15 federally subsidized homes were built in 1981. More important, federal recognition of the Pequot Nation came with the Land Claims Settlement Act of 1983, and the Pequots were able to re-acquire 800 acres of former tribal land.

For a time, it was hard going. Raising pigs, tribal vegetable farming, making maple syrup, and starting a pizzeria were businesses the Pequots tried, with modest success. Then they found the enterprise that changed their fortunes. They opened a bingo hall in 1986, which, by 1992, had grown into Foxwoods Resort Casino. Thanks to Foxwoods, the Pequots were able to invest $193 million to build their museum.

“This is a culmination of a dream, to tell the largely unknown story of the Pequots and preserve our culture and history,” Bell says.

Today, to celebrate the diversity of American Indian culture nationwide, the Pequots sponsor the Festival of Green Corn and Dance each August, drawing thousands from 500 tribes. The bull-riding contest is the most famous of more than 40 events, which include drumbeating and song in American Indian dress.

Mashantucket today has not only become a home for the Pequots, but also a place of revival for traditions as old as the land.