Mohegans prepared to share their story with state's students
Mohegan — Who should tell a tribe's story?
In the case of the Mohegan Tribe, the answer is the tribe itself.
The Mohegans have been telling their story for decades, developing educational programs and making them available to schools and teachers since before they gained federal recognition in 1994 and opened Mohegan Sun two years later.
Now, the tribe's ready to launch its Educators Project, an interactive Native American curriculum produced by the Mohegan Council of Elders and the tribe's Cultural & Community Programs and Communications departments as school districts across the state face a mandate to adopt such programming by the start of the 2023-24 school year.
From the state's perspective, the timing would seem to be serendipitous. For the Mohegans, it's merely a coincidence.
"The legislation was not the driving force behind the Educators Project," said Beth Regan, vice chairwoman of the elders' council. Regan, in fact, is the driving force behind the project.
Early in her career, Regan, a celebrated teacher and coach at Tolland High School for more than 35 years before joining the council in 2014, encountered a social studies curriculum that lacked an indigenous perspective. With the help of a supportive adviser and administration and her tribe, she set about correcting the deficiency.
"It was a natural extension for me to be involved in creating materials," she said.
In 2003, the tribe began awarding Mohegan Challenge Grants of up to $1,000 to teachers throughout the state who developed innovative plans for incorporating Native studies in their curriculums. The tribe also began sponsoring the Connecticut Teacher of the Year program, hosting an annual gala for the honorees as well as workshops and visits to the tribe's Tantaquidgeon Museum, the nation's oldest Native American-owned and -operated museum.
The Educators Project is the latest manifestation of the tribe's longstanding commitment to local education in Connecticut, Regan said.
In connection with the project, that commitment includes the tribe's hiring last month of Samantha Cholewa, a tribal member and teacher, as the first director of Mohegan curriculum and instruction. In her new role, Cholewa, who taught in Norwich and Griswold public schools the past eight years, will be the Educators Project's "point person," Regan said, serving as a resource for teachers who adopt the Mohegan curriculum.
"I'll be available to walk them through it," Cholewa said.
If all this sounds like it could be a great deal for the state Department of Education, it could be.
"They're incredibly generous," Stephen Armstrong, a social studies consultant for the department, said of the Mohegans' willingness to make the Educators Project available for free despite its obvious commercial value.
"There's not a lot of recent material on Native American history out there," he said. "There are books, but not curriculums. ... Schools, teachers are looking for it."
Regan said the tribe never gave a thought to the Educators Project's potential commercial value. Rather, she said, it's the result of a desire to meet an educational need and to ensure the tribe's story was properly told. "It's about keeping our legacy alive," she said.
Armstrong has met with Regan and Cholewa and has gotten a glimpse of the project materials.
"It's good," he said. "It's a very positive step."
In 2021, Connecticut focused on what public schools ought to be teaching.
Lawmakers already had required a high school course on Black and Latino studies when they called for the state Department of Education to develop, by Jan. 1, 2023, a model curriculum for kindergarten through eighth grade that incorporates Native American studies, climate change, personal financial management and a host of other subjects.
They then mandated that starting with the 2023-24 school year, each local and regional school board include Native American studies as part of the school district's social studies curriculum.
Such studies, the law says, must include "a focus on the Northeastern Woodland Native American Tribes of Connecticut."
Armstrong said the department wants the Native American curriculums that schools adopt to tell a "national story" but also the story of Connecticut's five state-recognized tribes: the Mohegans, the Mashantucket Pequots and the Eastern Pequots, all of which have reservations in southeastern Connecticut, as well as the Schaghticokes of Kent and the Golden Hill Paugussetts of Trumbull and Colchester.
"We want kids to know about the people who live in their state who may not be like them or who don't live in their neighborhood," Armstrong said.
He said his office is planning to meet with representatives of the five state-recognized tribes and will ask what contributions they want to make to Native American-curriculum proposals that the department likely will make accessible via a website. He said the Mohegans' Educators Project could serve as a model for other tribes' offerings.
"They've given us a road map," Armstrong said. "Kudos to them for taking the lead."
Regan said the Mohegans have shown parts of the Educators Project — an ever-evolving work in progress — to small groups of educators and plan to eventually share the project with every school superintendent in the state. The project materials are accessible through a password-protected website featuring an interactive map of important Mohegan sites and such units as "Meet the Mohegans," "4 Notable Mohegan Women" and "Oral Traditions."
A unit on "Two Sachems" compares the challenges faced by the first Mohegan chief, Uncas, who lived in the 17th century, and the current chief, Lynn Malerba. It includes "teacher resources," "student tools" and "video assets," including a video of Malerba speaking and audio of a radio play co-written by Melissa Tantaquidgeon Zobel, the tribe's medicine woman and historian, and her daughter, Madeline Sayet.
"When I taught, it always came back to, 'What can I use? What kind of materials are available?'" Regan said. "We've responded to that need."
In an example of the project's usefulness and adaptability, Regan and Cholewa tailored multiple lesson plans for the "4 Notable Mohegan Women" unit to different grade levels.
Regan said Cathy Soper, the tribe's director of strategic initiatives and communications, deserves credit for the project's visual appeal. Soper and her team drew on tribal archives for photographs and graphics.
Lexis Foster, a second-grade teacher at Mohegan Elementary School, part of the Montville school system, said she's seen some of the project materials and is eager to begin teaching Native American history to her students, many of whom are members of tribal families.
"I have to educate myself first," she said. "This gives me the tools. It's authentic and it's based on state standards."
Foster said the materials — lesson plans, videos, photos — would have been especially helpful to teachers during the hybrid learning that schools turned to during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"From my perspective," she said, "the pages are student-friendly."