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Gambling With Their Future

With the Mashpee Wampanoag poised to open a casino in the state, the tribe's youngest members are faced with a decision: Stick around and see how much money materializes, or pick up and leave for college. Either way, their culture will be tested.

On a rainy mid-July morning, 10 young Mashpee Wampanoag tribal members fished for lunch by shuffling through the water at low tide, digging at the silted bottom of Popponesset Bay with their toes in search of something hard and smooth. Boys and girls took turns stabbing the muck with a toilet plunger and pulling up mollusks. When the day turned cloudless and hot, they loaded a bucket with a mix of grime-covered clams and mussels and drove a few miles back to the tribal ground. Sixteen-year-old Unique Costa, a shy girl with a nurturing demeanor, rinsed the bounty with a hose and prepared them for a boiling pot on the grill, while the others kneeled on the benches of a picnic table, pulling bags of potato chips and sandwich components from a cooler. Robbie Hendricks, the group's impassioned chaperone who, though he's 29, looks as youthful as his charges, grinned at Costa as she scrubbed the shells. "If you're not native, you'd need a permit to get those," he said. As "Wamp card" holders (they are literally a card-carrying people), tribal members are allowed to fish at nearby coastlines. It's one aboriginal privilege out of a handful of small benefits afforded by law. But for these kids, fishing means carrying out the traditions of their ancestors instead of having nothing to do.

Before the tribe was granted federal recognition in February, before the town of Middleborough voted for a casino proposal, before tribal chairman Glenn Marshall stepped down in disgrace, before the tribe's financial records were scrutinized by the FBI, and before Governor Deval Patrick gave Massachusetts gambling a thumbs up, the Mashpee Wampanoag were just a tribe concerned about day-to-day existence on Cape Cod while maintaining their cultural connectedness. Even after all those aforementioned events, not much has changed. The majority of tribal members think a glittery mythic casino is just that - a far-flung project that might help alleviate their struggle to remain a sovereign clan on their original land.

A new casino could, however, affect the Wampanoag's young people in a unique way. This current generation of tribal teenagers is the first to seriously consider university education in lieu of trade schools or the near-obsolete fishing career. The number of enrolled college students is still low, in part because affording college is a gargantuan obstacle, but an influx of casino money - whether it goes to individual tribal members or the community as a whole - could make paying college bills easier. The new question is whether a nearby casino and its jobs might entice them to forgo higher education and instead stick close to their homeland. Both options could threaten the future of their native culture.

YOU MAY WELL KNOW THAT THE MASHPEE Wampanoag were the first people to greet weary Pilgrims from the Mayflower. This distinction means that they were also the first to gain exposure to foreign diseases and weapons - neither of which they could defend against. Many were killed off, while tribal reservations in the Western states and territories held onto their bigger populations. In 1621, their first recorded leader, Massasoit, entered into a treaty with Plymouth Colony, and by the mid-1700s, nonnatives were encroaching on their land. Although the group was officially listed as a US Indian tribe in the 1822 War Department records, a "bookkeeping error" kept them off the list when oversight of Indian tribes was transferred to the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1849. They didn't regain full federal recognition until early this year.

Only two generations ago, almost all members of the tribe lived in the town of Mashpee. They strategically married to sustain strong bloodlines (wedding a first cousin was acceptable and common) and hunted or fished for a living. By the 1970s, two significant changes jolted their modern-day course. For one, Cape Cod was exploding into a vacation destination accompanied by rapid development and increasing wealth. Also, natives began to intermarry with another local minority: Cape Verdeans. The result? Some people moved to the South Shore or farther away, either forced out by unattainable real estate or diffused into neighboring communities.

Just this fall, 18-year-old Victoria Miranda moved away, but for a different reason: She left her hometown of Dennis, a 30-minute drive from Mashpee, to become a freshman at Howard University in Washington, D.C. In addition to being an ambitious student, she's a well-traveled dancer, a former Mashpee Wampanoag Pow Wow Princess, and a proud tribal member engrossed in her culture. Her education is partially funded by the tribe's 2007 scholarship award, which was split among four college freshmen. "The elders, they stress coming back," she says, "but I don't want to live on Cape Cod."

Miranda represents a small but significant slice of tribal youth who are recognizing opportunity outside of their familial setting, whether it's a university far away or even the Native American High School Summer Program at Harvard Medical School. "My dad said, 'If you really want to make something big of yourself, then you can't do it on the Cape.' " Miranda plans to attend law school and become a judge. If she returns to work for her people, she "can do so with an educated mind." At Howard, she's met people from Ghana and Alaska. "Everyone has the same attitude, that it was time to go," Miranda says. "There is a time and place to be home, and it's not now."

Higher education isn't the only opportunity for tribal youth to learn more than their parents did. Some of the best new cultural education is right in Mashpee. For example, 3-year-old Mae Alice Weekanashq Baird is breathing life into a previously dead language. She's the first person in seven generations to speak Wampanoag as her native tongue. Her mother, Jessie Little Doe Baird, is writing the Wampanoag dictionary. Since 1993, Baird has collected roughly 10,000 word stems reclaimed from a dormant language that had gone unspoken for more than 100 years. Her decision in 1996 to pursue an MIT linguistics graduate degree, which she finished in 2000 - an unusual move for a tribal member of her generation - was fueled by lofty ambitions. "If you want to reinvent the wheel and be able to analyze documents from the 1600s, you need to have the training." Her kid-friendly Wampanoag immersion class, held in one of the tribal ground's trailers, is a hot ticket. Nonnatives not connected to the tribe, though, aren't allowed in. Baird explains that because only a handful of people across the Wampanoag nation speak the language, the rest might feel ashamed if a non-Wamp picked up their vocabulary. Baird hopes that eventually more children, like Mae Alice, will be raised in a bilingual environment. "She corrects her father's grammar all the time," Baird adds.

OLDER MASHPEE Wampanoag kids agree that learning the language of their ancestors is very cool. But at Mashpee High School, as well as other public schools that tribal students attend, Wampanoag isn't offered alongside Spanish and French. US history classes - especially those covering Pilgrims and the first Thanksgiving - also pose a problem. "I hated history," says 19-year-old tribal member Brailyn Frye, "because it was in such conflict with what I learned from my parents and grandparents." Unlike on Cape Cod, Native American teens living on Western reservations typically attend school with other natives and learn their language as well as traditional dances. "But our young people are different, always battling two different cultures and trying to balance them," says Alice Lopez, the tribe's housing director.

Back in July, just before he stepped down as tribal chairman after acknowledging a falsified military record and earlier rape conviction, Glenn Marshall said he hoped casino money will allow for a native-specific charter school. "I don't think these kids are getting pushed," he said at the time. "We've found that Indian kids who drop out of the school system here then go to night school, get their GED, and go on to college - they're now on the dean's list. So what's the problem? Is it the kid? The system? Is it both?" Robbie Hendricks thinks it's that kids oftentimes can't relate to their teachers and need native role models. That's why he acts as a liaison between tribal students and faculty at Mashpee public schools. "I ask that they please call me up first when there is a racial problem. I try to get them to think about how these kids perceive things," he says. Hendricks also leads a popular after-school tutoring program. He describes Eric Whatley, a 14-year-old who failed a year of school, as "the poster child of a bad kid" - that is, until the two started working together. "I didn't like some of my teachers," says Whatley, an articulate athlete who likes math and throwing the javelin. "Robbie gave me a second chance."

Hendricks - who graduated from Cape Cod Community College - wants to give all the kids a chance. Over the summer he dispatched a group of teens on a campus tour of University of Massachusetts at Amherst. "They were in awe," he says. "Most of them rarely travel off the Cape. UMass opened their eyes, and made them realize there is more than Four C's," as the community college is known. Still, getting into college won't be easy. Because very few parents attended college, only a few understand how to help their kids through the application process, let alone effectively show them how to apply for scholarships, loans, and grants. Lopez, the tribe's housing director, envisions a day when the tribe can finance education for anyone who seeks it. "We have kids in college right now calling up and saying, 'If I don't make this payment, they are going to kick me out.' And, a lot of times, we can't help them."

IN THE MONTHS FOLLOWING FEBRUARY 15, THE day the tribe gained federal recognition, hundreds of calls inundated the council's phone lines. Estranged natives claiming to descend from Mashpee Wampanoag ancestors wanted a spot on the roster. Applications for membership were distributed, and if everything checked out, a committee asked the applicant, where have you been? What have you been up to? And why only now are you coming forward (even though the answer was obvious)? DNA testing was utilized if necessary. As of October 10, there were 1,535 tribal members, although that number is expected to swell as the application process continues.

"One misconception about being federally recognized is that we're just going to get money," says Lopez. "Not so. It just makes us eligible for funds. There are so many damn rules. All I've been doing for six months is reading volumes about federal regulations."

As the tribe's housing director, Lopez, with her slicked-back ponytail, shimmery cream eyeliner, and white sweatshirt with "Hollywood" stitched in pink across the chest, gets a lot of phone calls. Her office phone and her new fuchsia RAZR are constantly ringing with tribal members who are worried about foreclosures and homelessness. The goal, says Lopez, is to get all the members who want to live in the town of Mashpee a home there without feeling like they're doomed to poverty. But the median price of a home in Barnstable County is $350,000. The median household income for Native Americans in that county is $45,933, according to the 2000 Census. So, while the majority of tribal members - 822 of them - do live in Barnstable County, others cannot afford it. "We have people living in tents, doing winter rents only, or three families living in a single-family home, just so they can be here," Lopez says.

Unless the allure of the Cape begins to fizzle, the next generation of Mashpee Wamps expects to inherit this housing problem, which bleeds into all aspects of life. (Lopez, for example, drives 45 minutes off the Cape so that she can buy "much cheaper" groceries.) If the tribe has remained anchored to their land this long, they sure aren't about to give up now. Federal funds will begin to mitigate housing woes, but not entirely.

Tribal teens know that if they want to raise families there, they'll need a healthy income. Either that, or some hefty funds injected into the housing program. Don't yet point to the casino, though. Lopez grapples with immediate concerns. "We're constantly dealing with 'Who's going to be evicted today? Who's been neglected by their landlord and has mold growing in their home?' I have no idea about casino profits and if we might see them," she says. "This [housing] program has to live in today."

Joe Kalt, the co-director of the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, predicts that the casino could lead to a surprising shift in the Native American lifestyle. "As a tribe gets more integrated economically, I think the sense of Indian identity only gets stronger," he says. Like the majority of Mashpee Wamps, Kalt emphasizes the gravitational pull of community.

There is immense pride in working for the tribe, and a "physical craving," says Lopez, to be around family. "Once in awhile, someone leaves," Lopez says. "But eventually, they come back."

Kalt sees the Mashpee Wampanoag as a potential Native American success story. "They'll face a make-or-break choice. If the casino ends up making a lot of money for them, they have to resist distributing it as per capita." Tribes in the past that have avoided individual dividends and instead invested the money into community programs have made striking progress across the board. But a quick influx of wealth is potentially dangerous for any individual or community.

Victoria Miranda, the college freshman studying in D.C., is aware of that. "I'm most concerned that people will forget our traditions and get wrapped up in the idea of money," she says. "Not to say it's going to happen, but when money comes into view, you tend to lose focus. I'm worried about the casino becoming the first priority and our culture falling to second. At the end of the day, we need to be united. Much of the reason settlers were able to take over is because internal opposition divided us. It could happen again in a different form."

Jennifer Schwartz, the Globe Magazine's summer editorial intern, is a senior at Boston University. E-mail her at jensch72@gmail.com.

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