American Indian leaders today often brag about the spirituality of Indian people. They point out that this spirituality was one of the first things Christopher Columbus noticed when he initially encountered Indian people. But what would Columbus think today, if he were to encounter the modern, casino Indian? What would he think of the tribes and leaders who enrich themselves by the white man’s vice, and neglect their own people?
Let’s say Columbus landed in Connecticut, rather than the West Indies. Suppose he first encountered the Mashantucket-Pequot club, and their Foxwoods casino. The first thing he would notice is that they aren’t Indian, but black. (Brett D. Fromson, Hitting the Jackpot, Atlantic Monthly, 2003, pp.9-18.) So, that would have made him think he landed on the East African coast. That would require a serious re-adjustment of his geographic orientation.
Then he would have been stunned by the club’s billions, indeed. With that kind of wealth available, the European invasion of the Americas would have happened a lot sooner, more quickly, and with a much more intense effort (if that were possible). But Columbus would have also seen in the fake “Indians” an economy based solely on the vice of “foreigners,” hardly the mark of transcendent spirituality.
Columbus would have noted the extreme avarice and discontent among the club members themselves. He would have seen terrible physical and sexual abuse among family members; “safe houses” for children escaping the ravages of their parents’ addictions to alcohol and illegal drugs; violence and shootings among members and a high crime rate; and Columbus would have met some blacks of the club who preferred not to live with the community. He might have met Jean Swift and her family, abandoning the camp, on their way out West, completely dissatisfied with the club.
He would then have observed that the group was not really a tribe, but a business organization, a guild of some kind, based on a fraudulent claim of racial identity. He would hear, even from the inventors of the club, that it wasn’t an Indian tribe at all, and possessed no traditions, religion, or community. It was only a business club. (Fromson, p. 211, f.)
Columbus would also find out that if he inquired too deeply into the organization, he might have to dodge bullets. (Jeff Benedict, Without Reservation (Harper/Collins, 2000), p.350, f.)
Even so, he probably would have found out that a mulatto woman claiming to be a keeper of the traditional flame, claiming to speak the Pequot language (a branch of Algonquin), claiming to come from a long line of chiefs and medicine women, neither spoke any form of Algonquin, nor was Indian at all (Benedict, p.351).
And suppose Columbus had landed on the Pacific shores, rather than the Atlantic. What would he have encountered there?
He would not have been impressed by the peace and love among the tribal community. If he met only one of the 107 small bands of Indian people scattered all over California, he would find nothing but litigation and “civil war” over tribal membership! Why? By reason of the same plague that exists on the Atlantic coast: gold fever. Members are fighting over the gold.
Suppose he met the Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians. He would find that 15 percent of the membership had been banished, or “disenrolled” to use the modern legal term. An old, established clan of 174 people was ousted in 1999. According to Chuck Schillings, one of those ousted, it’s all over envy, grudges, feuds, and greed. Definitely low spirituality there.
If he met Greg Sarris, he would have met the first undocumented “Indian” leader, who had to advertise in the papers to get members for his newly invented Federated Indians of the Graton Rancheria. Some 65 percent of his members don’t even live in California. But they all have their hopes up for a big casino in Rohnert Park.
If Columbus met the Pechengo Band of Luiseno, he’d see a group of Indians appealing to foreign law to protect them from the abuses of “Indian sovereignty” by their own leaders.
So, it looks like poor Columbus would have to go back and rewrite his journals. He would not find that the Indians “loved their neighbors as themselves,” or that they “could easily be made Christians.” He would not see them as kind, gentle folk, but just more greedy European tribalists, with darker skin.
Indeed, Columbus would think he was having some déjà-vu of home, here on the other side of the globe.