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National humanities grant to fund Pequot research project

Mashantucket — A National Endowment for the Humanities grant will fund a collaborative effort to digitize historical records of Pequot life in the first half of the 19th century, a trove of which researchers here have been compiling for two decades.

The Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center and the Native Northeast Research Collaborative jointly pursued the $179,403 grant, one of 317 NEH grants awarded last month as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security, or CARES, Act.

Recipients were chosen from among more than 2,300 applications.

“It’s very timely,” Joe Baker, the museum’s executive director, said of the project. “It shows that the Pequots — the Mashantuckets and the Easterns — have through their tenacity and their ability to withstand attempts to erase them been able to maintain their presence in their homeland. For a Native American tribe, it’s highly unusual.”

The project, “On Our Own Ground: Pequot Community Papers, 1813-1849,” should be available to scholars and the public by the end of the year, according to Paul Grant-Costa, co-director of the Native Northeast Research Collaborative. The collection of more than 100 previously unpublished, high-quality images, transcriptions, interactive biographies, geographies and commentary will be available online at nativenortheastportal.com.

Grant-Costa and Tobias Glaza, also a co-director of the research collaborative, formerly known as the Yale Indian Papers Project, are former senior researchers at the Mashantucket museum. They and others at the museum long have been gathering documents with the help of Mashantucket and Eastern Pequot tribal members.

Grant-Costa said the grant will enable researchers to focus on records kept by state-appointed overseers who interacted with tribal populations during a period when Native Americans were considered wards of the state.

“If the tribes had a question, they drafted a petition with overseers,” Grant-Costa said. Such petitions were filed in state and county courts and now reside in the Connecticut State Library.

Researchers are now examining financial records that provide details of the income Native Americans derived from land rentals and labor, as well as the debts they incurred in obtaining goods and services.

“They have a lot of great information,” Grant-Costa said. “Some of these records already have been transcribed by museum staff over the last 20 years. We’ll be reviewing them, retranscribing them according to our methodology and entering them into an online system. We’ll be adding a lot of material.”

In what may be a first for a project of its kind, the researchers will enlist current tribal members in the editing process, “a more ethical way of doing it,” Grant-Costa said. Adding the perspective of Native scholars also could include fresh written commentary and recorded audio-visual presentations, he said.

Eric Maynard, a member of the Mohegan Tribe, and Debra Jones, a Mashantucket Pequot, will join Grant-Costa and Glaza on the project’s editorial team. Katherine Sebastian Dring, chairwoman of the Eastern Pequot Tribal Council, and Marissa Turnbull, the Mashantuckets’ historic preservation officer, will head the community delegations.

Baker noted the project will be well up and running by the time the museum, closed amid the coronavirus pandemic, reopens next spring.

“We think it’s really significant as we strive to make the museum more relevant in a challenging time,” Baker said. “Our emphasis on archaeology is less today, but research still is a vital part of the story we tell. ... It’s a story of survival.”

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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