Chief Ronald Roberts says that, for years now, he's been the victim of bad press and character attacks. Articles which have appeared in newspapers such as the New York Times have accused him of fakery and of being a con man while documenting his attempts to gain official recognition for his tribe, the Western Mohegan Indians.
The tribe, whose population's roots are in Granville, New York, and whose Ulster County-recognized reservation is on the 250-acre property of what was once known as the Tamarack Resort, have been gathering the support of the Ellenville and Wawarsing governments in their bid to move ahead with their plans. But what has held those plans up for so long has been what seems to be a few missteps on the tribe's part — missteps which have been pounced upon by the media in what Roberts and his business partner say is an effort to discredit and defame the chief.
However, what the media that's covered his trials and tribulations hasn't truly emphasized is the fact that he really is an Indian, and he has the DNA tests and genetic markers to prove it.
"Not one article says I'm not an Indian," says Roberts regarding the press coverage. Robert Parker, the Western Mohegans' business manager, explains how the articles got it wrong — and had an axe to grind.
"The theme of the article was the man who reinvented himself, because he had fourteen different vocations in his life," explains Parker, who once owned the Concord Resort and now heads the Western Mohegans' business ventures. "If we were talking about Jack Welch, he'd be a hero doing the same thing. It's depending on the spin you want to put on it."
"The spin they wanted to put on it was that he was a con man," Parker continues. "All he did was do a lot of different things in his life: he was a country singer, he worked in the mountains, he was an MC at a show, he was in the quarry business, he was in the soap operas. All that does is give you life experience."
Parker also explained that the sentence Roberts received in 2004, for perjury and falsifying documents, had extenuating circumstances which the press never covered, and that the judge's leniency showed how illegitimate the prosecution's case really was.
"The circumstances to those criminal situations, there were some other people involved," says Parker. "[Roberts] plead guilty at the trial to two counts. To show you what the judge believed, he probably believed it was trumped up charges, but he's a judge, he has to do what he has to do. The federal government wanted him to go to jail for three and a half years. The judge gave him six months at home and five years probation. The federal government appealed that, and the judge resentenced him to the same thing. That's done, that's history.
"And that's got nothing to do with if the tribe is a tribe, and that's got nothing to do with his Indian heritage," adds Parker.
Further adding to the rebuilding of Roberts's credibility is the recent announcement of a film adaptation of his life by Imagine Entertainment, the production company co-chaired by Ron Howard. The film, which was announced only recently, will be directed by Howard, and is currently being written by screenwriter Grant Morris.
"I read about the chief in the New York Times, and most of the story turned out to be untrue," says Morris in regard to the extensive research he has done to write the screenplay. "He's definitely larger than life," he adds.
Plans for the Future
According to the recently passed Wawarsing Town Council resolution, "the Tribe and its designated developer seek to construct a recreational facility consisting of a 2,000-4,000 room hotel(s), 200,000-300,000 square feet of casino class III gaming, multiple restaurants, retail space, a 3,000 seat show theater, and other ancillary facilities…"
For that to happen, the group will need to gain official New York State recognition as a tribe, a designation they have had at the county level since 2001, according to Parker. He also describes the tribe's origins, saying that the Mohegan Indians met with Henry Hudson and the Dutch back in 1609 on Schodack Island, near Albany. While the Indians coexisted with the European settlers who came to the New World, the Mohegan tribe would often fight alongside the different factions they came across.
"The Mohegans always went back and forth: they fought on the side of the Dutch, they fought on the side of the English, they fought on the side of the Americans. The Mohegan tribe has never been conquered by the United States," says Parker.
Eventually, the law of the land dictated that the Indians couldn't live with the white settlers after all.
"They had three choices: marry a white person, convert to Christianity, or move west," explains Parker. "The ones who stayed behind converted to Christianity, and they kept their practices, their heritage, underground." This, he says, is what happened to the Western Mohegan tribe.
As for what their plans for the future are, outside of the language written in the aforementioned resolution, Parker is hesitant to say anything is set in stone.
"Our exact gameplan is not 100% formed," he says. Among the tribe's state interests, however, is the hope to one day open up a hydroponic farm in the area, so as to help provide better food to the local market. The group is also currently working hard to get their heritage museum ready for public viewing — as it stands, the displays are coming together nicely, with different artifacts and cultural pieces already in place which help tell the story of the Western Mohegans and the history of the Indian experience throughout America's history.
Roberts himself has also worked as a civic leader for Indian culture, and has participated in educational workshops and presentations with children and schools around the area for years. In fact, he even has pictures of himself leading other Indians down to ground zero after 9/11 to lead prayers.
Above all, Parker and Roberts want to stress their hopes to be a part of the community, and only to contribute to the area's fortunes and future.
"We're not looking to take the land off the tax rolls," says Parker, referring to the Tamarack property. "We're looking to be good citizens of the county."
"And we don't want welfare," adds Chief Roberts, referring to perceptions that after an Indian tribe is given a reservation, its members will only abuse their welfare eligibility. "We want to earn our own money."
To learn more about the tribe, visit their website at westernmohegan.org, or call them at 647-2777.
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