Commonplace

www.common-place.org · vol. 4 · no. 4 · July 2004

Joanna Brooks
Samson Occom at the Mohegan Sun
Finding history at a New England Indian casino
Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV

I.

I did not expect to find Samson Occom at the Mohegan Sun Casino–"300,000 square feet of gaming excitement"–in Uncasville, Connecticut. But there he was, an eighteenth-century Mohegan missionary, etched into the wall in one of the casino’s twenty-nine restaurants. I was hunched over a cup of clam chowder, trying to recover my senses from snow-blindness brought on by four days reading Occom’s archived manuscripts at Dartmouth College, in Hanover, New Hampshire, four hours north of Uncasville. Now, dining at the Mohegan Territory Diner, my bleariness was compounded by the overwhelming smell of cigarette smoke and the electronic din of slot machines. Lifting my eyes from my lunch, I glanced up at the giant reproduction of an 1861 reservation map plastered onto the wall. And there I spied a dot located just off the New London turnpike in the heart of the Mohegan Reservation: "Occom house." How did Samson Occom get here?

I have visited tribal casinos in California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Oklahoma, but none of them compare to the Mohegan Sun . . .

Born in 1723, near Uncasville, Occom was raised by a traditional Mohegan family, before converting to Christianity during the Great Awakening and seeking a college-preparatory education from the Reverend Eleazar Wheelock. As an author, itinerant minister, fundraiser for Dartmouth College, tribal politician, and leader of an intertribal Christian separatist movement, Occom developed an indigenous brand of Christianity that promoted American Indian political independence and spiritual vitality during an era of rapid decline for many New England Indian communities. His archive of letters, journals, sermons, and hymns is the largest extant body of American Indian Anglophone writing from the colonial era. It documents the marginal, often fragile political and economic existence of American Indian communities in eighteenth-century New England and New York, as well as Occom’s struggle to support his wife Mary and their ten children.

sign
Fig. 1. Sign posted at the boundary of the Mohegan Reservation in Uncasville, Connecticut, greets visitors in both Mohegan and English: "Mundo Wigo" / "The Creator is Good." Photograph by the author.

Occom’s writings communicate a deep sense of the hunger, wet, and cold that characterized subsistence living in early New England and New York, especially their impoverished American Indian communities. For four feverish days at Dartmouth, I followed Occom and his fellow Native missionaries as they argued in vain for fair pay from missionary societies, bargained endlessly with creditors, and struggled to maintain tribal land bases against predatory white tenants and speculators. To get by, Samson Occom carved bowls and bound books. He darned his own socks. He chased his only horse–an especially wayward mare–across pages and pages of marshes and wet fields, until he found her, legs broken, dead.

I left the Dartmouth archive saturated with a sense of the tenuousness of Mohegan life in eighteenth-century New England. A few hours later, I arrived for the first time at the Mohegan Sun Casino complex. I parked my rental car in the six-story "Indian Summer" garage, then walked the path circling the perimeter of the "Casino of the Earth" in simple astonishment. I have visited tribal casinos in California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Oklahoma, but none of them compare to the Mohegan Sun: its arching domes glittering with stars, shielded by giant banshells painted with tribal designs; the casino itself mapped on a four-directions, four-seasons axis; thirteen seasonal moons marking its circular perimeter; corn, squash, and beans "Three Sisters" designs woven into the carpet; frame longhouse and Indian stockades straddling casino entrances; animatronic wolves perched on stone outlooks hovering over the "Wolf Den" gaming area; and Pendleton-blanket covered chairs in the diners.

As I lapped the Casino of the Earth, I laughed out loud marveling at the strange twists of history. I am an early American literary historian. I descend from the Puritans, but I tend to root for the Indians. I like texts thick with ironic signifying and secret codes, texts that fold history back on itself. I did not expect to find Samson Occom at the Mohegan Sun, but I should not have been surprised. Native Americans in New England have always had to contend with colonial expectations of what Indianness should look like. Their livelihoods have often depended on it. The Mohegan Sun Casino is a brilliant, unsettling monument to this long historical negotiation.

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