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Tantaquidgeon Museum in Uncasville embraces its heritage

Believe me when I say that there are many “heritage” museums in our part of the United State. Some are little more than the unwanted residue, the forgotten, dusty items in an attic that tell a life story of perhaps a single person.

Others thankfully are well-funded, well-curated collections of artifacts and writings that describe an entire culture and invite scholarly research. Such is the Tantaquidgeon Museum in Montville, located at 1819 Norwich-New London Turnpike in Uncasville on Church Lane.

It is distinguished by its native stone masonry and is nestled among native plants and trees, many of which are identified. A welcoming outdoor walking path leads to a full-size, replica wigwam and longhouse within a stockade that gives the visitor a sense of scale and construction techniques used to build these permanent shelters. The museum received the Village Preservation Award in 2003.

Founded in 1931, the Tantaquidgeon Museum is the oldest Native American museum in the United States. At its current location it is now operated by the Mohegan Tribe who have long endeavored to preserve tribal history and lore, well before the arrival of the Mohegan Sun Casino.

The building was recently upgraded to provide climate control to protect the integrity of artifacts, and restrooms for visitor comfort. Handsome, lighted, display cases house some very outstanding examples of Native American arts. The building interior is divided into three general areas: Plains-Southwest (Cherokee, Zuni, and Navajo), Eastern Woodlands (Mohawk, Micmac), and Mohegan. The Plains-Southwest gallery contains brilliant beadwork on moccasins and belts. The Eastern Woodlands gallery houses items from tribes in the Northeast and Canada such as baskets and boxes. The Mohegan gallery has a wide ranging collection of hand-carved items and traditional attire such as belts and collars. The room houses an amazingly life-like statue of Gladys Tantaquidgeon, who had honorary doctorates from the University of Connecticut and Yale University, in her traditional royal blue regalia.

Gladys, the last Mohegan native speaker, was instrumental in founding and maintaining the museum, and is much revered for her lifelong efforts to study and preserve traditional Native American language, arts and spiritual practices. She was inducted into the Connecticut Womens’ Hall of Fame in 1994.

One exhibit among many that interested me was a collection of carved whale bone items that were given by Ed Fowler who once remarked “All true Mohegans are whalers at heart.” Like many New Englanders he took to a life at sea and earned a living as a whaler. Also on display and noteworthy due to its large size is a collection of arrowheads and stone tools. Everywhere you turn there are hunting bows made to be used until they outlived their usefulness and were replaced by a new one. Decorative clubs are also part of a personal armory, but were mostly used for ceremonial purposes.

I was fortunate during my visits to the museum to have spoken with museum director, Anita Fowler, and museum coordinator, Jason LaVigne. I asked Jason what his favorite part of the museum is, and he replied that he most treasures the sense of connection and continuity over 10 generations through the preservation of objects and traditions, a view also shared by Ms. Fowler, who noted that all items in the museum are donated. There are so many fine objects on exhibit that a single visit is insufficient to appreciate them all. Fortunately for this community, the price of admission to the Tantaquidgeon Museum is free.

To keep up with planned activities and events at the museum, Ms. Fowler suggests finding them on Facebook or calling (860) 848-0597. The website is www.mohegan.nsn.us

Phil Houk is a former submariner, UCONN grad, and retired field service technician. He can be reached at plhouk@ct.metrocast.net.

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