Melissa Tantaquidgeon Zobel: ʽStanding in love’ for the Mohegan tribe
Mohegan — From the time she was a little girl, Melissa Tantaquidgeon Zobel gave tours of the Tantaquidgeon Museum, the oldest Native American owned and operated museum in the United States, and studied her tribe.
Her great-aunt, Mohegan Medicine Woman Gladys Tantaquidgeon — who had worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Indian Arts and Crafts Board — selected her at a young age to carry on after her.
Gladys Tantaquidgeon, who died in 2005 at age 106, imparted a lot of ancient information to Zobel, and passed down a chain of knowledge from her own mentors and her mentor’s mentor.
Zobel, 62, has focused her life on recording those stories, whether in books, poems, plays or screenplays.
Zobel serves as tribal historian and served as medicine woman from 2008 up until recently. She wrote a biography “Medicine Trail: The Life and Lessons of Gladys Tantaquidgeon.
Zobel devoted years to studying history and related topics, such as sovereignty in government.
She worked on federal recognition of the Mohegan Tribe and in the cultural department. She recently celebrated her 30th anniversary as a tribal employee and now works as its creative media liaison.
Her books include “Wabanki Blues,” “Snowy Strangeways,” “Fire Hollow,” “Oracles: A Novel” and “The Lasting of the Mohegans.” Her award-winning play, “Flying Bird’s Diary,” was a finalist for the Eugene O’Neill Theater National Playwrights Conference in 2021.
Zobel remembers one time when she was young and frustrated about something, Gladys said to her some of the most profound words she ever heard ― “We must all stand in love for the tribe” ― a reminder to focus on the heart of the matter and not worry about little things.
“Elders allow us to look at the big picture and the long expanse of our histories and we revere that,” she said.
Now a Mohegan Elder herself, Zobel is passing on her knowledge to the next generation.
Her daughter, Madeline Sayet, is a director, playwright and professor who is touring the country with a solo show about the tribe.
Her daughter, Rachel Sayet, is a diversity coordinator at the Five Colleges in Massachusetts and advises on Native American culture.
Her son, David Uncas Sayet, is an attorney.
Over her life, Zobel has seen positive changes in the visibility of the tribe. She said that visibility is important “so our children don’t have to explain themselves.”
When Zobel went to her first Native American writers conference in 1991, people came up to her and asked to touch her because they couldn’t believe a Mohegan was still alive. Now, the Mohegan Tribe has chief, Lynn Malerba, who is treasurer of the United States.
Zobel said young people are hopeful today as a result of these changes.
“We try and really promote our culture at all levels and that has created a lot more opportunities for learning and community, and it’s also created a sense of hope,” she said.