Conn College, UConn acknowledging their land once belonged to Native Americans

New London — If you’ve recently attended a major event at Connecticut College, you’ve likely heard a speaker note that the college occupies land first inhabited by Native Americans.

“Specifically,” the speaker likely said, “we honor the Mashantucket Pequots, Eastern Pequots, Mohegans, and other tribal nations who are indigenous to Nameag, now called New London, and the land surrounding Coastal Algonquin, also known as the ‘Long Island Sound Region.’”

Connecticut College introduced the “land acknowledgment statement” during an event a couple of years ago, and has broadened use of the statement since then, with speakers delivering it at commencement exercises in May, at convocation in August and before addresses on other occasions, including a recent forum on race, according to Julia Ferrante, a college spokeswoman.

The statement recognizes the historical hardships the tribes endured and expresses gratitude that tribal members remain in the region.

In April, the University of Connecticut adopted its own statement, which can be read aloud or distributed by anyone who wants to use it at a public or private event on university property. Since all of Connecticut was once Native American territory, the statement may be used on any UConn campus, Stephanie Reitz, a UConn spokeswoman, said.

UConn’s statement refers to the Mashantucket Pequot, Mohegan, Eastern Pequot, Schaghticoke, Golden Hill Paugussett, Nipmuc and Lenape tribes.

Yale University has adopted a statement that acknowledges the Mashantuckets, Mohegans, Eastern Pequots, Schaghticokes, Golden Hill Paugussetts, Niantics and Quinnipiacs “and other Algonquian speaking peoples.”

While such statements are commonplace in such countries as Australia, Canada and New Zealand, the vast majority of cultural and educational institutions in the United States have yet to embrace the practice, according to the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture, a proponent of the adoption of the statements.

“It’s a great initiative,” Katherine Sebastian Dring, chairwoman of the Eastern Pequots of North Stonington, said of Connecticut College’s statement. “We’ve had a long-term collaboration with Connecticut College, and we’re happy that UConn is becoming more involved in acknowledging our presence. We hope that other educational institutions will do the same.”

Sebastian Dring said an institution’s adoption of a land acknowledgment can be valuable in helping that institution come to grips with traditional Native American histories that are rife with omissions and misrepresentations. The Easterns, she said, have worked for years to correct the record through relationships with Connecticut College, UConn, Eastern Connecticut State University, Yale and the University of Massachusetts Boston.

“Native Americans are an important part of the history, the fabric of Connecticut, and you just don’t read about it — just the Pequot War,” Sebastian Dring said. “Now, more Native American people are speaking at colleges and universities, meeting with professors and students and taking part in panel discussions of our history.”

When it sought to develop a land acknowledgment statement, UConn’s Office for Diversity and Inclusion turned to the Akomawt Educational Initiative, a consultancy formed by Jason Mancini, former executive director of the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center, and two of his former colleagues there, endawnis Spears and Chris Newell.

Akomawt approached leaders of the three eastern Connecticut tribes — the Easterns, Mashantuckets and Mohegans — all of whom were immediately receptive, according to Spears, Akomawt’s director of programming and outreach.

“With their help, we drafted a statement and UConn’s previous president (Susan Herbst) approved it,” said Spears, a descendant of the Diné, Ojibwe, Chickasaw and Choctaw tribes.

The Mashantucket and Mohegan tribes joined the Easterns in welcoming UConn’s initiative.

“UConn is a wonderful institution, and we commend their decision to acknowledge and show respect for tribal land throughout the state and the significance of tribal history and culture within this region, extending long before the existence of Connecticut,” said Lori Potter, the Mashantuckets’ director of public affairs.

“Tribal leadership is extremely pleased that the university has adopted such a thoughtful and respectful acknowledgment of the aboriginal people who controlled these lands for so long,” said Chuck Bunnell, the Mohegans’ chief of staff.

Echoing Sebastian Dring, the Easterns’ chairwoman, those behind the land-acknowledgment movement emphasize that an institution’s adoption of a statement is merely a starting point.

“It can become just something you say at events,” Spears said. “A school, a museum, any public-facing entity (that adopts a statement) has to back it up with other, actionable steps.”

Mancini said he and his Akomawt partners are teaching a class at the University of Hartford and are consulting with Quinnipiac University, two more institutions discussing the adoption of land acknowledgments and building relationships with tribes.

“A lot of schools that have departments of inclusion are realizing that they have almost no Native American students and have a hard time retaining faculty of color,” Mancini said. “These places are becoming more competitive, and they’re realizing they have to change the way they operate to attract people of diverse backgrounds.”

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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