Keeping Native American culture alive in Connecticut
As Connecticut and America emerged from colonial governments to independence, members of local Native American tribes saw the opposite happening to their governance, culture, language and traditions.
Members of the Mohegan, Mashantucket Pequot and Eastern Pequot tribes were told their language had no value, and they were ordered not to speak it or teach it to their children. Tribal members learned commercially viable trades, women excelling at basket making, men joining the burgeoning whaling industry in New London to earn money to survive in their new environs.
They turned to Christianity and built clapboard homes to show their assimilation and avoid the federal 1830 Indian Removal Act, signed by President Andrew Jackson to relocate eastern tribes to reservation lands in the West.
But local tribal leaders, mothers and those charged with keeping spiritual traditions alive privately defied laws meant to erase their culture. Mohegan women created sewing circles in their 1831 Mohegan Congregational Church, built in response to the Indian Removal Act to “prove” to Connecticut government that Mohegans had integrated into the American culture. Men joined “social clubs” that met at the church.
They could talk tribal politics, culture and traditions, but if a state Indian overseer popped by, “It’s just a sewing circle, nothing to see here,” said Stacy Dufresne, operations manager at the Tantaquidgeon Museum. The museum features a room of exquisitely crafted Mohegan quilts created at such sewing circles.
Flash forward nearly 200 years after the state banned Native languages, culture and practices. The Connecticut General Assembly during its June 2021 special session included a provision in the biennial state budget that mandates school districts to teach Native American studies in public schools’ social studies curriculum starting in the 2023-24 school year.
State Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, who championed the legislation, said the law requires the curriculum focus on Northeastern Woodland tribes and Native American tribes of Connecticut. The state Department of Education is working with Connecticut tribes to develop the curriculum. The law also allows school districts to accept gifts, grants and donations to help develop or implement the curriculum.
Representatives from local tribes smiled and their faces beamed with pride at the reversal. They also readily accepted the weighty responsibility to ensure their history and culture survive and thrive.
“We’re extremely fortunate today, and we realize that,” said Nakai Clearwater Northup, manager of outreach and public programs at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum & Research Center. “The fact that we can freely speak our language now. That we can teach and be proud to be Pequot is a victory for us, because our ancestors couldn’t.”
Telling their story the right way
Jason LaVigne, Mohegan tribal historian and Tantaquidgeon Museum program coordinator, said many American images of Native Americans have been derived from Hollywood and pop culture icon Buffalo Bill Cody.
Eastern Woodlands tribes did not wear big, full-feathered headdresses of the open-range Western and Great Plains, LaVigne said, as they would not have been practical for hunting or battles in the woods. The great Mohegan Sachem Uncas — local tribes later adopted the European word “chief” for tribal leaders — wore a close-cropped deer-tail headdress with a few feathers.
But when 19th century war hero and showman Buffalo Bill Cody created his Wild West Show in 1883 and traveled the country, American pop culture grabbed the image that all Indian chiefs wore big, feathered headdresses. Eastern tribes adopted the style for public powwows and celebrations.
The feathered headdress persists, but Eastern Pequot tribal leaders now use more local turkey feathers, with eagle feathers symbolizing high honors, said Katherine Sebastian Dring, daughter of longtime Eastern Pequot Chief Roy, “Hockeo” Sebastian, and like him, a staunch advocate of preserving Native American culture.
Her late father’s headdress was presented to him by Mashantucket cultural director, Wayne Reels, Dring said. Hawk and turkey feathers have been an Eastern Pequot tribal symbol for generations.
“The feathers help us honor our ancestors and access that spiritual world,” Dring said. “You feel the way the feathers move on you, and you can connect to the winds. The birds and the winds are the connections to the messengers to the spirit world.”
Dring grew up in New London and now lives on the Eastern Pequot reservation in North Stonington, served on the Eastern Pequot Tribal Nation Tribal Council several times since 1971. She served as chairwoman for six years starting in 2015. She now is a tribal elder and has been engaged in and participating in tribal culture her entire life.
“It is my honor, and was able to sustain me, when there were native statements and misstatements in the past about the tribe,” Dring said. “My dad was always above the fray of the politics and the negativity and the wrongdoing.”
Dring described several tribal traditions that live on at the annual Eastern Pequot Tribal Nation Powwow and at tribal ceremonies, such as the funeral for her father, who died May 31 at age 95.
Tribal medicine men and women begin tribal events and public gatherings with a smudging ceremony, burning sacred herbs and sweet grass in a bowl or shell to let the smoke cleanse the area and the participants to prepare for the ceremonies to come.
The pipe carrier holds up the ceremonial pipe to Father Sky and Mother Earth and the four directions. North signifies strength, endurance and truth and is symbolized with the color white, Dring said. East is the rising sun, knowledge and is ever-present, with the color, red. South is yellow and signifies growth and the healing powers of medicines that come from plants and surroundings. West is the wisdom of tribal ancestors and the spiritual world, represented in black. The Eastern Pequot tribal flag bears all four colors, Dring said.
Central to Eastern Pequot culture is the drum, Ding said.
“The drum is the heartbeat of our nation,” Dring said. “It kind of reverberates, not only in you, but as you march in (to ceremonies), you feel the vibrations in the ground. It’s a musical and natural connection, a nonverbal way to connect to Mother Earth and all the four directions and the Creator, and to keep all that alive as Native people.”
Dances are another highlight of Eastern Pequot celebrations, with men performing war dances, a tradition before battle or hunts, and women doing traditional blanket dances. Using basic Native American dance steps, the women swing their blankets to honor the four directions and Mother Earth, the way they swing the blankets becoming their own interpretive aspect of the dance, Dring, who participates in the blanket dances, said.
Chief Hockeo, “Running Deer,” put great meaning in the tribal naming ceremony, his daughter said. Tribal members are not given their Native American names at birth, she explained. Later, when they are able to articulate their personalities and interests to the chief, they ask for an appropriate name.
“If someone says, ‘I like to swim. I like the water,’ then the chief will give a name with water in it,” she said. “A name that reflects your connection to Mother Earth, or your characteristics.”
Dring’s name is Winter Swan. She loves being close to water, she said, and the ocean “is very dear to me.” Growing up, she recalled being somewhat clumsy. At age 6 or 7, she was encouraged to learn ballet to improve her balance.
“I’m still kind of clumsy, but I think about the grace of the swan when I dance,” Dring said.
At Mohegan, preserving tribal traditions was only part of Chief Harold Tantaquidgeon’s passion when he built the small Tantaquidgeon Museum in 1931 and filled it with his own family’s collection of tribal items, from baskets to regalia clothing to historic artifacts to documents and photos. He wanted to invite everyone to learn about Mohegan tribal history and people.
“Harold believed you can’t hate someone you know,” said tribal Historian LaVigne.
Harold and his sister Gladys Tantaquidgeon, the iconic tribal medicine woman, welcomed visitors, let them pick up items that were hundreds of years old and feel them in their hands. LaVigne, the tribal historian, said Gladys believed if you made something, such as a basket, you put part of your spirit into it. “You want it to be used, to be touched,” he said.
Museum officials today try to strike a balance between preserving and protecting ancient items and allowing guests to handle some items.
The Tantaquidgeon Museum has outdoor displays and activities, a replica long house family home, a dugout canoe, gardens to grow useful herbs and a garden patch to grow “the three sisters,” corn, beans and squash.
With them, tribal ancestors combined science with basic necessities, said Mohegan Traditional Specialist Greg Chapman:
Plant corn and beans together. The corn provides the stalk for the bean vine to wind around. Corn robs the soil of nitrogen, while beans restore nitrogen to the soil. The large, wide squash leaves growing beneath the two keep the soil shaded, cool and moist.
Inside, the museum’s rooms pay tribute to tribal history, customs and even its Americanization. As European settlements grew and Mohegans and other Native tribal members learned to adjust to their new world, many men turned to military service. A Mohegan man died at the Battle of Bunker Hill. Harold Tantaquidgeon, a World War II veteran, collected helmets from foreign servicemen. Several are on display in the museum.
“Harold called them chiefs,” LaVigne said of the foreign soldiers. “If you were in the military, you brought Harold a patch.”
Mashantucket Pequot Museum
At the Mashantucket Pequot Museum, an expanding exhibit features tribal members’ military service.
“A Pequot served in every war,” said Northup, museum outreach and public programs manager. The museum hosted a special Veterans’ Day event Nov. 12 for local veterans.
The museum traces more than just Mashantucket tribal history. An escalator rides down through a mock melting glacier to life-sized exhibits of the peoples who inhabited the land in its wake. Exhibits progress through the centuries to the beginnings of European contact and into modern times.
The Pequot’s history is part of Connecticut and American history, Northup said and that soon will be better reflected in public schools. For centuries, Connecticut celebrated John Mason, leader of the settlers’ massacre of the Pequot Village in Mystic — a hilltop area across from the Mystic Seaport —during the Pequot War.
On May 26, 1637, “We lost about 600 people in one hour,” Northup said. “It was the big turning point in our history. Pequot life will never be the same.”
The tribe marks the day as Pequot Day now and uses it to celebrate the survival of the tribe, Northup said, with food, crafts and children’s activities in the community center.
Connecticut pioneered what would become standard practice in dealing with Native American tribes, from wars to treaties to the reservation system and erasure of tribal languages and customs.
The Treaty of Hartford in 1638 divided the Pequots into the Western, Mashantucket and Eastern Pequot tribes. Some Pequots were sold into slavery to Bermuda.
“We reconnected with them,” Northup said of Bermuda Pequot descendants. ”They are joining us at our powwow in June.”
The whaling industry brought local Native Americans around the world. Northup said there are Pequot descendants in New Zealand today as a result.
European laws and dominance changed local tribal life
When settlers arrived in New England, they cut down the vast forests to create farmland, build ships and homes. They brought European crops and livestock that soon dominated the cleared landscape. Native American staple foods, plants and animals alike, dwindled and disappeared -- turkeys, deer and other woodland animals, native grasses, wetland plants and trees.
The native cattail is a “wonderous” plant, Northup said, useful from its roots to its cattail tip. Roots “taste like cucumbers,” he said. The sap that oozes out when the stalk is cut from the root is like honey, with a medicinal numbing quality for toothaches. Cattail pollen can be made into bread or pancakes. The stalks were bound tighter and were fashioned into the roofs of summer homes, called wetu. In winter, bark was fashioned over the cattails, which then served as insulation for the home.
Today, invasive phragmites, the mostly inedible tall plants with feathery seed tops, dominate freshwater wetlands, choking out cattails. The invasive emerald ash borer has destroyed ash trees, traditionally used to make baskets and canoe paddles.
Northup said some people still hunt on the Mashantucket reservation, and he hunts and fishes when he can.
“We’re just so fortunate here where we live,” Northup said. “I always tell people it’s incredibly hard to starve in the Northeast, especially where we live. We’re very close to the coast. We can go down to the coast right now and harvest a feast. And then the forests here are plentiful with deer, with turkey, with squirrel, rabbit. We get berries throughout the year with our cranberries ripe right now, and strawberries and blueberries in the summer. The mushrooms are prime right now, after a good rain, go out and forage for mushrooms.”
Carrying tradition forward in the 21st century.
Melissa Tantaquidgeon Zobel recently ended her long stint as tribal historian and her position as tribal medicine woman for a new time-consuming venture as creative media liaison, using high-tech media to ensure Mohegan stories become part of American pop culture. Plays, films, even fiction can tell stories that are inclusive and that might surprise people.
“Everybody knows about Samson Occom,” she said of the famous Mohegan preacher, educator and traveler, “but what about his wife? And everyone knows about the young Uncas, the warrior, but what about old Uncas? It’s really fun. It’s opened up a lot of tribal interest and opened up the notion that this was something we really wanted to do.”
The tribe has not yet selected a new medicine person, or people, Zobel said, as it could be multiple people. She succeeded her great aunt Gladys Tantaquidgeon in the position. Zobel said the tribal medicine person’s role differed depending on the times.
“You’re only job is to help the community,” Zobel said. “Make sure we change with the times to make sure we’re not obsolete. You pass on the traditions, but make sure you adjust with the times.”
She said her great aunt struggled with part of that adjustment, and just could not understand the internet. Zobel said she tried to explain it to her aunt shortly before she died in 2005 at age 106. “She just said, ‘Please don’t.’”
But when the tribe gained federal recognition in 1994, and started building the massive Mohegan Sun Casino, it was Zobel who had doubts about how this new world would change the tribe.
“She wasn’t opposed to things that changed, like the casino,” Zobel said. “I was worried, but she said, ‘just wait and see,’ and told me not to prejudge.”