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Montville - Faith Davison's story is one for the books.
A self-described "late bloomer," the Mohegan Tribe's retired archivist was "married at 18 and had a mortgage at 19." She raised three sons and ran up a resume that included landscaping, selling live bait and pumping gas.
And then she began to hit her stride, launching a career that culminated in her being honored last month with a Guardian of Culture and Lifeways Award from the Association of Tribal Archives, Libraries and Museums.
The award recognized Davison's contribution to the preservation of the Mohegans' "cultural sovereignty."
"Ms. Davison played a major role in the creation and development of the Mohegan Tribal Archives," reads the award citation. "Using her talents for research and her knowledge of history, both Tribal and colonial, Ms. Davison was instrumental in the acquisition and repatriation of Mohegan cultural properties."
At 73, Davison, who retired in 2010, continues to write and research, most recently penning the foreword to a history of Connecticut tribes and serving on an advisory committee to the Yale Indian Papers Project.
In an interview at her Webb Drive home, she recalled how it all began.
"I started taking classes at UConn and Mohegan Community College (now Three Rivers)," Davison said. "I was in my 30s, taking courses in anthropology and the sciences. I had all these credits, and my adviser said I could go to any college I wanted. So I applied to UConn, Wesleyan, Connecticut College."
Davison accepted Connecticut College's offer of a scholarship and earned her bachelor's degree at the New London school, majoring in anthropology and Spanish. Later, she obtained a master's in library sciences from the University of Rhode Island.
In 1997, the Mohegans had a library with 47 volumes and an opening for a librarian.
Enter the well-schooled Davison, a tribal member then working at the Mystic-Noank Library and at the Mohegans' year-old casino, Mohegan Sun. Before that, she'd toiled for years at Mystic Seaport, first as a docent and later cataloguing the museum's Rosenfeld Collection of maritime photographs.
In time, the feisty, outspoken Davison secured a library room on the former United Nuclear site where Mohegan Sun was built.
"I started collecting any material I could find that had anything to do with New England tribes or the genealogy of tribal people," she said. "I typed up a brief bio, did outreach, gave talks and spent a lot of time at the Mystic-Noank Library looking through bibliographies."
In a bid to pull together evidence of the tribe's history, she scoured historical society archives, town hall land records and probate and Superior Court files.
"She's a selfless researcher, a researcher's researcher, not someone who likes to take credit," said Melissa Tantaquidgeon Zobel, the Mohegans' tribal historian and medicine woman.
Zobel believes Davison's independent streak served the archivist well. "It's an important trait when you're doing research on Native Americans," she said. "What you find (while researching) is not always what happened. There are a lot of misconceptions, and you need to demythologize at every turn. A lot of material has to be reconsidered."
Zobel cited the case of Mohamet, the Mohegan sachem, or chief, who traveled to England in 1735 to petition King George II on behalf of the Mohegan people, whose land English settlers had taken. Mohamet died of smallpox while waiting for a commission to hear his case.
"His legacy was very sketchy until (Davison) researched it," Zobel said.
Davison recalled that the Mohegans hired a professional bidder to represent the tribe at a Christie's auction of Native American material soon after she was named archivist. It was there that the tribal library acquired a 17th century deed bearing the signature of Uncas, the legendary Mohegan sachem.
"I'm not going to tell you what I paid for that," Davison said.
Her efforts on behalf of the library took Davison abroad, where French and English archivists opened their collections. She "found what she was looking for," she said, examining an early map depicting a Mohegan trading post on the Connecticut River and "holding in my hands" papers signed by Mohamet.
On such trips, Davison regarded herself as an ambassador for the tribe - "the only Mohegan some people would ever meet."
When Davison retired at 70, the Mohegan Library and Archives held some 7,000 volumes, including works by Native American authors, both fiction and nonfiction, and books about Native American tribes, particularly those of the Northeast, and the history of the region. The material, now housed in the tribe's Community Center & Government Building at the end of Crow Hill Road, never circulates outside the tribe but is available to authors and researchers whose inquiries pass muster.
David Freeburg, Davison's successor, estimates the library now has close to 8,000 volumes. The Mohegan archives, in a separate room, contain rare books, documents and more than 450 baskets, a collection Davison made it her personal mission to enhance.
Bob Soper, chairman of the Mohegan Council of Elders, nominated Davison for the Association of Tribal Archives, Libraries and Museums award.
"Of course, we're very pleased with all she has done for the Mohegan Tribe ... not only in her paid position as archivist but also as a volunteer," Soper said. "We always see her at our annual wigwam. She attends meetings and serves on committees."
In 2011 the elders council named Davison a "nonner," a status conferred on female tribal members who have established a record of outstanding service to the tribe.
"People like Faith are the reason we've gotten where we are in Native American studies," Zobel said. "She's part of an important generation of scholars. In fact, she's one of its shining lights."