The Gambling Man

As the leader of the Mashpee Wampanoag, Glenn Marshall jump-started the frenzied race to bring casino gambling to Massachusetts—a race a lot of powerful people are now working to make sure he doesn’t win. But the hardheaded ex-Marine has a knack for getting his way. And, like his tribe itself, he’s never afraid of a good fight.

Editor’s Note: This article on the Masphee Wampanoag and their leader was reported and written in June and July and sent to press on August 17, two weeks before reports surfaced that Glenn Marshall had lied about his military record and been convicted of rape in 1982. Marshall has since temporarily given up his duties as tribal chairman; however, other Mashpee officials have vowed to continue pursuing their casino plans.

Here and there throughout the Mashpee Wampanoag’s tribal council building hang photographs of tribe members at their annual powwow. In some of the images, men in brightly colored Indian regalia wear prominent earrings, an age-old custom that caught the eye of the first European explorers to stumble upon the Mashpee’s forebears roughly five centuries ago. But when Glenn Marshall, the tribal council chairman, welcomed me into his office one morning this summer, he had in his ear a more modern adornment: a plastic hands-free receiver for his cell phone. While we chatted, he made frequent and abrupt use of the device, interrupting a thought by raising an index finger and then bellowing a few words, seemingly to himself, before resuming our discussion. He considered none of his points too important to disrupt.

The conversation eventually turned to what Marshall described as the decisive moment that led his tribe to victory in its fight for federal recognition, and, with it, Massachusetts to the brink of casino gambling. “We did something so unique that when other tribal leaders heard about it, they took in our ability to—”

“Yeah?” Marshall said, turning his head to tend to the call. (Turns out the crucial “something” he was getting at was his decision to file suit against the government in 2001, compelling it to consider the Mashpee’s long-stalled petition for recognition. As he tells it, when his first lawyer balked at the idea, Marshall simply found himself some new attorneys to get it done.)

As much as Marshall’s cell-phone breaks added dramatic tension to his anecdotes, that wasn’t his goal. He was merely multitasking, something he’s had to do a lot of while leading the tribe in its contentious rush to bring full-scale gaming to the state. “Nation-building is tough,” Marshall enjoys saying, half smitten with the notion that he leads what is technically a sovereign people, half irritated by the hours that job requires. His frustration is shared by those who seek an audience with him at the tribal office, where Marshall’s predilection for trying to accommodate virtually all comers often creates a logjam outside his door. On the day of my visit, Dan Fireman, son of Reebok founder and golf course builder Paul Fireman—who donated land to the tribe a few years back—was hoping to get onto Marshall’s calendar. Nothing doing. Marshall’s morning was already triple booked.

Marshall’s voice is big and deep, and his stout chest makes him look bigger sitting down than when standing. When he leans back in his chair, his white Fu Manchu mustache can add both warmth to his wide grin and resolve to an intimidating stare. An ex-Marine and Vietnam veteran, he worked as a cop in Boston and a commercial fisherman on the Cape before he became the surprise pick for tribal chairman in 2000. Marshall’s dad was not a tribe member, and so it was his mother’s father who taught him the stories and customs of the Mashpee. Today, along with a turtle shell and some feathers, Marshall keeps a picture of his grandfather in his office. And in his mind, he keeps an objective that he says he turns over daily: to do right by the spirit of this man. To Marshall, the casino, which he describes as a project that will ensure the survival of his people, fits squarely into that mission. “You’re either going to be the king or the goat,” he says. “I’ve never been a goat in my life. I don’t want to start now. I want to accomplish things in my life that make an impact.”

But that’s the other thing about nation-building: The more aggressively you chase progress, the more expensive that pursuit becomes. Earlier in the day, three BlackBerry-wielding men in chinos had arrived at the tribal council office carrying a bag of Dunkin’ doughnuts, which they placed on a table for anyone interested. One of them was Len Wolman, a South African–born businessman who partnered in the mid-1990s with the chief of Connecticut’s Mohegan tribe to develop the Mohegan Sun casino in Uncasville; after helping to get it off the ground, he brokered a buyout that was said to be worth half a billion dollars. He and colleague Sol Kerzner, another Mohegan Sun backer, had struck a deal with the Mashpee chairman in June and were now pushing forward on the planning for their $1 billion casino development.

Marshall already had plenty of people competing for his time when the receptionist told him that this group from Connecticut had arrived. “Listen,” he said, in a low reply, “treat these guys really good. I’m serious.” With no delay, Wolman and his entourage were shown in. An hour later, an ebullient Marshall was introducing them around the office.

For all the frenzy in the tribal office—and all the commotion among state policy-shapers grappling with the arrival of casino gaming—it’s easy to forget just how fast all this was put in motion. It was only February when the Mashpee received tribal recognition, and the speed with which the tribe has pursued gambling since then shows it’s bent on making up for lost time.

Though the Mashpee petitioned the government to add them to its list of recognized Indian tribes some 30 years ago, the request languished unconsidered for many of those years. (The Mashpee had tussled for centuries with colonists and the state, but the federal government hadn’t much dealt with the group and therefore never added them to the roster—a fact Marshall chalks up as a bureaucratic oversight.) In 1996, with the help of a hired consultant, the Mashpee submitted a beefed-up application that included a voluminous account of how they had maintained a distinct Indian culture for centuries. All told, the paperwork filed to the Bureau of Indian Affairs is said to have made up the largest application it has ever considered: more than 10,100 different documents totaling about 54,000 pages. But still, little happened, and in 2001 Marshall decided to file suit demanding a decision. After that suit succeeded, the Mashpee became the first, and so far only, new tribe recognized during the Bush administration.

As part of its push for sovereign status, the tribe struck a deal with the town of Mashpee, pledging not to build their casino on the Cape in exchange for its support of the bid. Were it not for that agreement, a good deal of the ensuing tumult might have been avoided. But with the tribe in the market for a spread on which to build, towns like New Bedford and the eventual winner, Middleborough, have courted Marshall with vigor; unwilling to appear out-hustled by the leaders of South Shore burgs, Mayor Tom Menino has even tossed out a half-cocked plea for Marshall to build his casino in East Boston. (How the Mashpee would sidestep the federal rule that their casino be located within 50 miles of their ancestral lands on the Cape, the mayor didn’t say.) State Treasurer Tim Cahill, arguing that Middleborough is getting a raw deal, has also jumped into the fray
, lambasting the hastily inked pact that calls for the tribe to cough up $11 million a year to the town. He has further suggested the state beat the Mashpee to the punch by putting a few casino licenses up for auction—a response that’s luring proposals (including one from the Mohegan tribe, which is eyeing a site in Palmer) and setting the stage for a scrap that Marshall, for his part, appears to relish. “I look at everything as combat. I’ve been accused of doing things in a military fashion. Is that a bad thing?” he says, grinning.

Though Marshall has estimated the tribe could break ground in a year and a half, the last couple of hurdles it faces are significant. First, in order to operate in Middleborough, the tribe will have to petition the federal government to certify the Mashpee-owned property there as official tribal land. How long that may take is anyone’s guess. And then the Mashpee and the state must come to terms on what sort of gambling will be allowed: While tribal land is not subject to taxes, any enterprise pursued on it must have the host state’s blessing. Accordingly, the Bureau of Indian Affairs will require Massachusetts and the Mashpee to sign a compact that will likely send a cut of the casino revenues into state coffers. That is, unless Beacon Hill takes up Cahill’s proposal and gets into the casino business itself, in which case the tribe will have de facto permission to do whatever it wants. Then it will simply be a race to see who can get their slots palace up first.

Undaunted, Marshall has been plowing forward. Along with a certain swagger, steering his tribe to this point has brought him a reputation as a guy who gets things done. In the march toward federal recognition, he says, he honed a style of leadership that he proudly calls hardheaded. “I used the legislature, the congressmen, the senators. I sought support from anybody who would listen to our story. I sued in federal court. I begged, groveled, did everything within the boundaries of the law to make sure my people got exactly what they deserve.”

Marshall doesn’t apologize for the fact that some of his efforts involved questionable characters, chief among them the notorious Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff, with whom the tribe signed on in 2003. At the time, the Mashpee theorized that federal bureaucrats were unfairly holding up the recognition process, and hoped some muscle in DC might change that. It was a move in keeping with Marshall’s then emerging belief that Indian groups must make themselves matter in the political process. “We don’t have a strong enough lobby. Do you think George Bush gives two shits about a tribe? ‘Hell, how much they gonna give me?’ That’s all they want to know. It’s a question of priorities within the Congress,” Marshall says. “We have to be a player in the overall scheme of things. If you can change an election, and you can help elect people, that person has to listen to you.”

Never major political donors before then, the Mashpee and their lobbyists started giving generously to select congressmen. Following Abramoff’s lead, they donated at least $20,000 to California Congressman Richard Pombo, who had taken over the committee charged with managing tribal issues. They also secured some face time with North Dakota Senator Byron Dorgan, who, in his capacity as vice chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, pressed the Interior Department in the fall of 2003 to finally rule on the long-delayed status of the Mashpee’s application.

Abramoff is now serving time in federal prison for bilking other tribes and corrupting public officials. (The Mashpee were never implicated in any wrongdoing.) And though Abramoff himself became political kryptonite for the lawmakers and organizations he did business with, a couple of his lieutenants, Kevin Ring and Michael Smith, still work with the Mashpee. On the hectic morning of Len Wolman’s visit, Ring was at work on a grant application, sifting through boxes of documents and wondering aloud when the tribe might spring for a wireless Internet connection. “Kevin and Michael are very bright young men,” Marshall says. “If they had done anything wrong, they would have been indicted—they wouldn’t be working for us. These are good guys.”

It’s not just political know-how from Washington that’s guided the tribe. The Mashpee have also benefited from the largesse of Michigan real estate developer Herb Strather, who bankrolled the $1.76 million purchase of the 125-acre spread in Middleborough where the casino will be built. No newcomer to gaming, in the mid-1990s Strather—who’s also the author of a book titled Getting Rich Is Easy—led the push to bring casino gambling to Detroit in the form of the MotorCity Casino, only to suddenly back away from the project shortly before it opened in 1999 after state gaming regulators noted concerns about his past real estate dealings. (The Michigan Gaming Control Board never made public any findings on Strather, but apparently raised enough worry to convince him he wouldn’t qualify for the gaming license he would need to stay on as an investor in the venture.) Eager to pursue his ambitions elsewhere, Strather began working with the Mashpee that same year—just as the tribe was reinvigorating its efforts at recognition—handing them millions of dollars to lubricate their campaign. Though it’s estimated that Strather has put up around $15 million in all, the exact extent of his benevolence remains a closely guarded secret. “We’ve never talked about that and we never will,” Marshall says. “Frankly it’s nobody’s business. Would you ask France about its business?”

In any case, if he is concerned about losing control to his deep-pocketed, better-connected backers, Marshall doesn’t show it. “They let us run our nation,” he says. “They ask me what they should do, and I say, ‘Sit back and write the checks.’”

While they were drumming up support for federal recognition, the Mashpee embraced the oft-told story that their ancestors had been the Indians who greeted the Pilgrims at Plymouth in 1620. This wasn’t by accident: Their role in something as fundamental to American history as the first Thanksgiving would make it seem all the more crazy that the government had passed over the tribe for so many years. But while it’s true that the Wampanoag on Cape Cod are descended from the loosely affiliated bands who met the Mayflower in 1620, historians don’t make note of a distinct tribe in Mashpee until the mid-1600s, when the Puritans began preaching to the Indians there.

During the next 150 years, Indian control of the area ebbed and flowed with the whims of the colonial officials, much to the Mashpee’s chagrin. These were not a supplicant people: They had a strong sense of what was theirs and of what they deserved. In the 1760s, the Mashpee were agitated enough to send one of their members to petition the king of England for Indian self-rule in the village.

Later, in the 1820s, as part of a White House plan to relocate eastern Indians to territory west of the Mississippi, an area minister named Phineas Fish was asked to assess how such a move would go over with the tribe. Fish responded that the Mashpee were assimilating into the Cape community, but nonetheless remained fiercely connected to their land. “[They] have lost sympathy with their brethren of the forest,” he wrote. Still, “their local attachments are strong; they are tenacious of their lands.”

That quality has not diminished, even as the Cape itself has changed over the past century. As the town of Mashpee steadily attracted middle-class vacationers and homeowners, its non-Indian population bulged, cutting into the influence that tribe members had long held over local
affairs. Feeling squeezed out, the Indians formed a tribal council—a government of their own—and in the early 1970s, the council’s lawyers stumbled onto a quirk of history they thought might help restore the tribe’s clout.

Back in 1870, when Mashpee was incorporated as a town, Massachusetts gave tracts of land to Indian families, many of whom gradually sold their property back to the state. At the time, there didn’t appear to be anything remarkable about the deals. But as the tribe’s attorneys now explained, a law signed by President George Washington was clear: Indian lands couldn’t be peddled without the okay of the feds, which Massachusetts officials hadn’t secured. Armed with that discovery, the Mashpee sued for the return of 13,000 of the acres—a total encompassing most of the town. The suit raised eyebrows nationwide: Area titleholders and developers stood to lose millions. To fight back, the town retained prominent Boston lawyer James St. Clair, who had been one of President Nixon’s attorneys during the Watergate hearings. He argued that the Indians weren’t a tribe. And therefore, the federal protections didn’t apply.

For much of the 41-day trial that ensued, a parade of experts filed in and out of the federal courtroom in Boston, offering, as they came, subtle variations on the definition of the word “tribe.” The crux of the town’s case was that, over the long wash of time, the Wampanoags in Mashpee had lost their language, their religious customs, and their aboriginal culture; they had intermarried with whites, blacks, or other dispossessed Indians and eased into the community at large, erasing the boundaries that marked them as a distinct group. In the end, the jury decided that though the Mashpee had once been a tribe, they weren’t one when they’d lost their lands—and they weren’t one now.

Before the trial, correcting its omission from the federal roster had never been a high priority for the Mashpee. But newly galvanized by the defeat,
the tribal council refocused its efforts on doing precisely that, laying the groundwork for its three-decade campaign to affirm its identity. For Marshall, who was a long way from assuming a leadership role when that slog began, the Mashpee’s eventual victory was a vindication. “If the Creator were to say, ‘What did you do?’ I could say, ‘I helped right a wrong.’ That was all it ever was.”

While the Mashpee invest their executive authority in Marshall, maintenance of their more sacred sense of being falls to the tribe’s chiefs and medicine men. And right now one of them, the venerated chief Earl Mills, is on his knees in the basement storage room of the tribal council office, trying to find something for me. Taking hold of what he’s come for, he makes a banging racket, knocking wood against boxes and old computer monitors. “Here we go!” he yells. “Ha! Get in here.” When I do, Mills, known among his people as Flying Eagle, rises from where he’d been kneeling on the cement, clutching a tool that looks like a giant post-hole digger. It’s a pair of quahog tongs—in case I didn’t know—used by fishermen in these parts to plumb the ocean floor for clams, an implement for which his people once boasted a legendary knack.

Mills’s position earns him deference and respect, but it affords him no decision-making authority. Still, he attends tribal council meetings and pays attention to what Marshall says. He thinks the old tongs might even belong to Marshall, whose prowess as a clammer was once well known. Of course, as times change, so do habits and traditions. Mills remembers when his people were hunters of deer, muskrat, and pheasant, when they worked the bays and estuaries for perch and eel that they cooked in skunk grease. Back when the ocean supported it, they were whaling ship workers as well, and some of the tribal dances Mills saw as a boy were passed down from those days.

Today, few of those dances remain. Of the Wampanoag language, Mills knows only a handful of words. But among the tribe, the 79-year-old is the keeper of much of its past. He’s so expert in genealogy that just about weekly he’s asked to identify an old Wampanoag in a picture or painting. He says he communes with a spirit world, finding identity in the land and his tribal customs, and he wonders whether all the sudden changes he sees could threaten that.

“We can’t let the casino take us over. We struggle all these years to prove to people who we are and to maintain that, and the idea that this could usurp that scares me,” Mills says. “I worry. Sometimes I’ll hear a person talk about the casino and say, ‘When will I get a check?’ and I wonder what is happening.”

No one, Mills included, denies that the casino will help solve some problems for the Mashpee. The cash it’ll generate will free the tribe from the federal grants it depends on to fund a range of social services—enabling the sort of self-determination, says Marshall, that will strengthen his people. Alice Lopez heads housing initiatives for the tribe, steering members into low-income homes and staving off foreclosures with a budget eked out from spaghetti dinner fundraisers. As much as anything, she hopes the casino can allow her people to stay put on the Cape in the face of skyrocketing property values, which have nearly tripled in the past decade. “We just want to find a way to tell tribal members that they can live in a place that is special to them,” she says. “And this should help.” A similar hope abounds in the career service office, where the furniture is falling apart and adult education programs are oversubscribed.

Money will certainly ease such concerns. It will also reveal priorities. As the floorboards of the tribal council offices squeak overhead with the ceaseless foot traffic of those imagining the Mashpee’s future, Mills admits to pestering Marshall about those priorities now. “We’re at the apex of change,” he says. “I want the fine print of this deal to demand that we maintain a sense of who the hell we are. I’m not talking about making sure they build a museum down the road. A museum tells visitors that there used to be a people here. If we forget who we are—if we forget the songs and the stories, and the dances—if we do that, are we even who we say we are anymore?”