Ralph Sturges, who died Sunday at 88, was chief of the Mohegan Indian tribe of Connecticut, a small group tracing its roots to Uncas, a dissident Pequot sachem who allied himself and his people with the English in the early 1600s.
Besides its loose connection to James Fenimore Cooper's "Last of the Mohicans," the tribe is best-known today as part-owner of Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, Conn., which is among the largest casinos in the world.
Sturges, who was named chief for life in 1992, helped shepherd the Mohegans through the federal tribal recognition process. Once they were certified a tribe in 1994, the Mohegans turned their 700-acre reservation over to a megacasino mogul, Sol Kerzner, founder of South Africa's Sun City. In what had been fields a few miles north of New London along the Thames River, Kerzner built a 300,000-square-foot gambling casino, plus a 1,200-room hotel, 30 restaurants, and a 55-foot waterfall over a martini bar. Mohegan Sun gave nearby Foxwoods, founded by the Mashantucket Pequots, a run for its money, though both casinos have prospered.
Sturges was born in New London, Conn., in 1918 on Christmas Day, but he made more sense as a Thanksgiving baby, as he counted American Indians and Pilgrims as his forebears. On his mother's side were Indians who had pressed for land settlements in the early 1900s; on his father's side were whaling captains and before that, perhaps, passengers on the Mayflower. He liked to joke that as his father's family was rowing ashore, his mother's family was on the shoreline, throwing stones.
Sturges grew up attending Indian cultural events such as weddings and funerals in the tribal center at Mohegan Hill, not far from New London. When he joined the tribal leadership in the 1970s, it was as the director of burials.
Skipping high school, he joined the New Deal Civilian Conservation Corps toiling at national parks, and then he worked as an electrician. During World War II, he served in a naval observatory on Fishers Island, and then in the Army in New Guinea.
After taking classes at the Pennsylvania Institute of Criminology, Sturges worked as a paymaster for several Connecticut companies and had several other jobs, including as head of public relations for the Salvation Army of New England. He also became a sculptor of regional note, and once presented a whale cut from marble to the governor of Connecticut, Ella Grasso.
In the late 1970s, Sturges got involved with the campaign to get the Mohegans recognized by the federal government as a tribe. The status would give members access to a range of benefits, from tax breaks to the ability to set up a reservation. In 1989, the government preliminarily rejected the application on the grounds that the tribe had voluntarily ceased to exist in the 1940s. But Sturges and others persisted and gathered documentation that ethnic identity had persisted. In 1994, the Mohegans became the ninth tribe ever to become recognized by documenting their existence.
At recognition, the Mohegans numbered some 987 members, but thanks in part to the casino, which was built within two years, their numbers soon increased. By 1998, there were 1,300 members, and today the tribe claims to be 1,700 strong.
"Money is the greatest attraction in the world," Sturges told the Associated Press in 2001. "Because Indians are making money, now it's a privilege to be one."
Sturges lived simply, though there were occasional allegations of malfeasance that went nowhere. Thanks to gambling revenues, tribal members enjoy health care benefits, pre-paid college tuition, and discounts at casino restaurants.
In recent years, the tribe has looked beyond gambling to sports. It sponsored a professional race driver, Matt Kobyluck, and in 2006 bought the Orlando Miracle of the WNBA, renaming the team the Connecticut Sun. Ever the canny businessman, Sturges explained to USA Today recently that the acquisition allowed the casino to advertise in many magazines and newspapers that would not otherwise take its ads.
Firmly bi-traditional, Sturges was fond of keeping order at meetings with a traditional feathered talking stick in one hand and a gavel in the other. "They call me the three-piece-suit Indian," he told the Hartford Courant in 1994.