Sina-cism: What are we doing in these woods?

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In the middle of the turbulent 1960s, while many of us were eating cornflakes, watching “F Troop,” learning about the first Thanksgiving and trying to build campfires, historian Alvin M. Josephy Jr. published “The Indian Heritage of America.”

Chris Sinacola

Chris Sinacola

“Few persons today recognize, or are appreciative of, the vast contributions made to contemporary life by the American Indians,” writes Josephy, who enumerates what all Americans owe to the Native Americans, including corn, squash, potatoes, snowshoes, hammocks, kayaks and lacrosse.

Josephy points out that “at least fifty-nine drugs … were bequeathed to modern medicine by the Indians,” including coca, cinchona bark and ephedra, from which we moderns derive Novocaine, quinine [malaria treatment, on the World Health Organization’s Lists of Essential Medicines] and really effective nasal decongestants.

Foxwoods will keep you deep in the wilderness, in more ways than one Sinacola says.

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Foxwoods will keep you deep in the wilderness, in more ways than one Sinacola says.

Two other Native American contributions – cotton and tobacco – have more problematic histories, although cotton seems to grow fine if you pay your workers, and no one is forced to smoke.

And then there are native-owned and operated casinos.

Oops.

To be sure, Josephy probably didn’t see that one coming when in 1952 he drew an assignment for Time magazine to cover the Nez Perce people of the Pacific Northwest. From that experience grew an interest in and advocacy for native peoples that endured for the remainder of his life.

A decade after that Time assignment, Josephy was senior advisor on Indian policy in the Kennedy administration. His work exposing racist attitudes and policies aided the cultural survival of native peoples in America. He and his second wife ran a camp for Nez Perce children in Oregon for many years. He was a fine historian and a finer humanitarian.

Josephy died in 2005, at age 90, at his home in Greenwich, Conn., having lived long enough to see the United States recognize many native tribes – and to witness the rise of the casinos in his home state.

I recently made my first trip to Foxwoods Resort Casino, and in light of the bitter history they have had, it’s hard to begrudge the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation their wealth, or those who choose to gamble at Foxwoods their fun.

At the same time, I can’t help but wonder whether this was the sort of thing Josephy had in mind all those years ago. For behind the glitter of any casino is a darker story – of economic desperation, addiction, broken families and suicides.

It could be that those who have crowded into Foxwoods nonstop for the last 30 years are a universally happy lot gaining wealth and wisdom with each toss of the dice or spin of the roulette wheel.

Perhaps, but I doubt it. Many of those I saw were simply feeding the remaining hours and minutes of their lives into the chirping, gaudy agents of the Law of Large Numbers, hoping against hope for the moment when three Jacks or identical pieces of fruit might signal the arrival of their American Dream.

The Law of Large Numbers welcomes you to your nearest Native American-run casino.

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The Law of Large Numbers welcomes you to your nearest Native American-run casino.

I know, a few do actually win significant sums. And a subset of those have the intelligence to walk away before those winnings are lost. But many others play on, even though they recognize, at some level, the result is not in doubt.

Not my idea of fun, obviously.

But the real question is whether even the Pequot people are getting much out of all this. Because, some 30 years after it opened, and in spite of the ironclad rule that the house always wins, Foxwoods is deep in debt [an estimated $1.7 billion], Southeast Connecticut appears to me to be as economically struggling as ever, and yet the rest of the nation seems determined to play on. Massachusetts is rushing to climb aboard the gambling bandwagon. Worcester, too, was until a few years ago seeking a slots parlor of its own.

Gambling advocates speak about economic benefits, jobs, and revenues that swamp the social costs of casinos. I’ll never believe them.

Perhaps my distant Puritan ancestry prevented me from placing a single bet during my day at Foxwoods, but my unease that day is really deeper. I don’t buy the Native American version of false wealth any more than I buy the Las Vegas, Atlantic City or online versions. If anything, the contrast with the cultural values of native peoples makes it less believable.

If I am a voice crying in the wilderness, so be it. I simply believe that sustainable economies must be built on firmer and more noble things than human addiction. So I cry out: What are we doing in these woods, here and across the great American wilderness? Is this really the best that we Americans can do?

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