Minding the past, planning for the future

Photo by Gino DeMaio

Lynn Malerba had a "little" announcement for her best friend over dinner recently. She had just been selected as the next chief for life of the Mohegan Tribe.

"She told me so nonchalantly," says Donna Prue. "She lays it on you like it's no big deal. She said it was an honor and she couldn't refuse."

Prue met Malerba at the Hartford Hospital School of Nursing nearly 40 years ago and wondered if anybody could really be that nice.

"When I got to know her, I said, 'Oh my God, she really is that nice,' " Prue remembers.

The two women have been through many of life's milestones together - Malerba says her husband Paul had to pass the "Donna test" before they could get married - and Prue says even though Malerba is the chief, to her she will still be "just Lynn."

Malerba grew up in Uncasville, where streets and schools are named after her tribal ancestors. She and her husband live here today and regularly host Sunday dinner for the family. She says she loves to be part of the tribe's "living history."

On a recent sunny afternoon, she stopped in at the tribe's modest museum on Church Lane and lingered in front of photographs of her mother and aunts and her great grandfather, Burrill Fielding, also known as Chief Matagha.

"This is our place," she says, flashing her fabulous smile.

While attending the Mohegan elementary school, she and her classmates "trooped" through the woods each year to visit the museum. Medicine Woman Gladys Tantaquidgeon, who ran the museum, always singled out the Mohegan children and asked them about their parents.

"You were always really connected to your past with the people you grew up with," she says.

Malerba is at home on Mohegan Hill, but she is just as comfortable meeting with Wall Street executives on behalf of the tribe, speaking in front of the local chamber of commerce or hashing out federal Indian policy in Washington, D.C.

She left a 23-year career in nursing and hospital administration to establish the tribe's health and human service programs in 1997, and was elected to the tribe's governing council in 2005. She became the tribe's first female council chair last year and was still settling into that role when the Elders Council summoned her earlier this year to tell her she had been selected as chief.

"It was an unexpected honor," Malerba says. She thought the next chief would come from the generation before her and had written a "passionate letter" on behalf of another tribal member.

These days, she's wrapping up her business as tribal council chairwoman. She says she hasn't finished everything she started, including implementing some strategic initiatives, but that there are "eight very other accomplished people on the tribal council."

Malerba will be officially appointed chief in a private ceremony during the tribe's annual homecoming gathering in mid-August. On that day, she will wear her red and black regalia. The colors, she says, represent women and strength.

Women have always been treated as equals in the tribe, she says, and her parents always told their seven children there was nothing they could not do. She never felt her gender was a barrier. She and her husband raised their daughters, Elizabeth and Angela, the same way.

The tribe's constitution, she says, is fairly vague about the role of the chief, though it mentions culture and tradition. "I'm going to wait until I transition, then I'm going to meet with tribal members to see what they think," she says.

She would like to stay involved in some of the activities she has come to love while serving on the tribal council, including global tribal policy issues.

"I like the wonkish stuff," she says.

The tribal chief serves as a bridge of sorts between the generations and ensures stability and continuity within the tribe, honoring the 13 past generations and ensuring prosperity for the next 13.

Malerba's mother, Loretta Roberge, says that will come easily for her daughter.

"She understands the young and she understands the older," Roberge says. "She understands people, period."

For all her competencies, Malerba says she is struggling with one aspect of her new position.

"Each chief contributes a craft they're particularly good at," she says.

The late Chief Ralph Sturges was an accomplished sculptor and his work is on display at the tribe's museum. Malerba has done some needlepoint and says beading may be her crafty pursuit. She plans to embellish her own regalia and has conceived a signature design that includes hearts and flowers.

Everything she's done for the tribe, she says, has come "from the heart," so it's appropriate that as chief, she will be known as Mutawi Mutahash, which means "many hearts."

She credits her successes to the people who love and support her - from her mother, whose lifelong service to the tribe inspired her, to her husband Paul, who has had to eat many dinners alone while she was away, to the child-care provider who helped her juggle career and family life.

"Regardless of anything you accomplish, you do it because people love and care for you," she says. "While I may have achievements, there are so many people who have contributed. You don't do this in isolation."

Malerba's mother was a longtime tribal councilor who helped the tribe achieve federal recognition and is now a tribal "Nonner," or respected elder. She says her daughter is a "take charge" person who puts her heart and soul into everything she does.

Malerba worked her way through nursing school and as each of her five younger sisters turned 13, took them to get their ears pierced, to buy their first makeup and out to dinner, her mother says.

"I think that's what draws people to her is that she has such a caring way," Roberge says.

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