Yale, Mohegans agree on transfer of artifacts
New Haven — Yale University and Mohegan tribal officials signed an agreement Friday that calls for Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History to transfer hundreds of Mohegan artifacts to the tribe’s Tantaquidgeon Museum in Uncasville.
The signing, which took place on the Yale campus, finalized a pact between two Connecticut institutions whose relationship dates back centuries.
“Today we celebrate an exciting moment in the longstanding relationship between Yale and the Mohegan Tribe,” said Lynn Malerba, the Mohegan chief, who invoked historical tribal figures. “This transfer completes a sacred circle for us. The Mohegan people are now able to welcome the spirits of Chief Uncas and Lucy Occum home with the return of these significant cultural objects. We are joyous at the return of these spiritual objects and thank Yale University and the Peabody Museum for their thoughtfulness in creating this unique opportunity.”
Peter Salovey, Yale’s president, and David Skelly, director of the Peabody Museum, joined Malerba; Kevin Brown, chairman of the Mohegan Tribal Council; Laurence Roberge, chairman of the tribe’s elders council, and Melissa Tantaquidgeon Zobel, Mohegan medicine woman and tribal historian, in signing the seven-page agreement, which enumerates the artifacts being transferred.
In the Peabody’s collections for decades, the objects include a wooden succotash bowl, used for a traditional dish of sweet corn and beans, from 18th century Mohegan matriarch Great Lucy Occum, a wooden mortar and a doll, as well as hundreds of archaeological objects excavated from Fort Shantok in Uncasville, site of a Mohegan settlement from 1636 to 1682. The archaeological artifacts include stoneware, glass beads, iron knife blades, pipe bowls, shells and bones.
“This agreement is the result of collaboration and mutual respect between a very old Connecticut institution and an ancient sovereign nation,” Salovey said.
Under the pact, Yale will transfer the artifacts to the tribe within 90 days. They eventually will be displayed at the Tantaquidgeon Museum, where the tribe is developing a cultural preservation center to facilitate research and scholarship. The center is scheduled to open in August.
Skelly said curators and staff of the Peabody were excited about the transfer.
“We have a great partnership with the leaders of the tribe, and the Tantaquidgeon Museum is a fantastic institution,” he said. “We look forward to further collaboration around our shared interest in the history and future of the Mohegan Tribe.”
The Tantaquidgeon Museum, which dates to 1931, is the oldest Indian-owned and -operated museum in the country. Gladys Tantaquidgeon, the famed Mohegan matriarch and pioneering anthropologist who helped found the museum, received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from Yale in 1994. She died in 2005 at the age of 106.
Links between Yale and the Mohegans are well established. During the 1700s, Yale President Ezra Stiles studied Mohegan language and spirituality. Malerba earned a degree in nursing practice at Yale.
More recently, the institutions have cooperated on the Yale Indian Papers Project, an initiative devoted to locating, transcribing and digitizing materials by or about New England tribes. In 2014, Yale researchers discovered an 18th century manuscript that they concluded had been written by Samson Occum, a Mohegan minister, and annotated decades later by Fidelia Fielding, the last fluent speaker of the Mohegan-Pequot language.
More than a dozen Yale and tribal officials took seats at an oblong conference table during Friday’s signing ceremony in Woodbridge Hall. Members of the Mohegan Tribal Council and the tribe’s elders council attended the event.
Malerba grew emotional during her remarks.
“These artifacts tell us about who we are as a people,” she said, “connecting current Mohegan citizens to our ancestors and connecting future Mohegan citizens to our ancestors and our rich cultural history. It is significant that these important cultural objects represent both a woman, Lucy Occum Tantaquidgeon, and a man, Chief Uncas, as this reflects the balance of life. We believe we cannot have wholeness without both men and women.”
Roberge, the elders council chairman and Malerba’s brother, presented Salovey and Skelly with a gift from the tribe, a bowl crafted from the burl of a Mohegan maple tree by Justin Scott, a tribal member.
Following the signing, Zobel, the great-grandniece of Gladys Tantaquidgeon, conferred a blessing on the assembled.
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