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A Medicine Woman Heals Everyone

The Medicine Women of the Mohegan Tribe have passed on Mohegan history and culture since memory. They healed people both spiritually, societally, and physically, through an indigenous woodland pharmacopoeia and Native philosophy. Whether shifting a person’s energy by prescribing basket weaving or beading for stress and depression to bringing people together to see different perspectives, their role has been to create a healthier person, tribe, and greater community.

Mohegan’s current Medicine Woman Melissa Tantaquidgeon Zobel was trained in these Tribal oral traditions, traditional lifeways, and spiritual beliefs by her great-aunt (who she refers to as her spiritual grandmother), Dr. Gladys Tantaquidgeon. Her grandmother was a Mohegan medicine woman, BIA social worker, anthropologist, author, tribal council member, and received an honorary doctorate from both the University of Connecticut and Yale. It was Tantaquidgeon Zobel’s natural curiosity and openness to hearing her ancestors’ stories that led her to follow in her grandmother’s footsteps.

“Gladys loved to tell a story about one day, when she was a girl, attending a family dinner with her elderly great-aunt Fidelia, who jumped up from the table, saying, ‘I have to go talk to someone in a tree,’” says Tantaquidgeon Zobel. “So, a lot of the kids chuckled, thinking, ‘Crazy Fidelia. she thinks she’s going to see the Makiawisug, the Little People of the woods, and they don’t exist.’ But Gladys didn’t laugh. She wanted to know more about the Makiawisug and see with the eyes of the ancients in which ancestors, mystical beings, spirits, flora, fauna, and fungi of these woods are all connected and in communication with one another.”

It’s this longing to see in this ancient way and not being dissuaded by mockery for so doing that made Tantaquidgeon Zobel herself a good mentee to train. Like her grandmother, she didn’t assume that everything in this world that’s obvious to mainstream eyes is all there is.

Tantaquidgeon Zobel spent her time after school and weekends at the Tantaquidgeon Museum, the oldest to be owned and operated by Native Americans and located in Uncasville. Her grandmother co-founded the museum at the height of the Great Depression, with her father (John) and brother (Harold). Artifacts, which are hundreds and thousands of years old that belonged to the Mohegan people and carry their spirit, are showcased here.

“The Mohegans refer to these ancient objects as relations, for they carry the spirits of the ancestors,” says Tantaquidgeon Zobel, who enjoyed learning from her family, and was open to communicating with the ancestors, listening to dreams, visions, spirits, and anything else that came her way. Plus, she, too, wanted to preserve traditional Mohegan spirituality, work to save traditional Native ceremonies and artforms, preserve the meaning of traditional Mohegan symbols, and pass on old Native American stories.

In addition to learning under her grandmother, Tantaquidgeon Zobel graduated from The Williams School in New London; earned a BSFS in history/diplomacy from Georgetown University, a masters in history from the University of Connecticut, and an MFA from Fairfield University in creative writing. Writing on Native issues has always been a constant in her life. She has won numerous awards for her books, screenplays, stage plays, and other contributions to the success and survival of the Mohegan people. And she’s a frequent speaker at area universities and high schools.

“Years ago, I was giving a talk on Mohegan history at Norwich Free Academy and it was going fine until I started to talk about Gladys becoming a Medicine Woman, the Little People in the woods, and the ancient beliefs,” she laughs. “This older man got up and said, ‘Well, you were doing fine, girly, until you started talking about the little people.’”

She exposed herself to that mockery intentionally. Part of medicine is encouraging people to open themselves up to things and give those things a chance, she says.

“Once another culture invites you to experience a new way of seeing the world, it grows your heart and mind and ability to see more of this world,” says Tantaquidgeon Zobel. “So, if you actually want to preserve the complex ancient beliefs of a place or an ancient way of living, you have to pass those stories on that might be complicated, difficult, or unpopular.”

Tantaquidgeon Zobel notes that her grandmother would always say, “You can’t hate someone that you know a lot about.” Keeping the ancient stories of this region alive and educating others was something that her grandmother and the co-founders of the Tantaquidgeon Museum all believed was the best cure for prejudice. Tantaquidgeon Zobel believes too in the importance of sharing knowledge and culture.

Another one of her grandmother’s sayings is “We must all stand in love for the tribe.” “The idea is that whatever you’re doing should stem from love,” notes Tantaquidgeon Zobel. “If you love someone, you want them to be better and want to help them. Let’s understand everyone’s perspectives. Let’s try and get everyone to consensus. Let’s stand in love for one another and then work from there. Because that’s the most medicine you can give, right?” 

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