Nehantic descendants unearth buried past
East Lyme – Buried beneath the crests and valleys of McCook Point overlooking the Long Island Sound is the history of a forgotten people.
David Brule, a descendant of the Nehantic Tribe who lives in Massachusetts, said there is a belief among indigenous people that the land speaks to them with the stories of their ancestors. If they leave that place, the land doesn’t talk to them anymore. They forget where and from whom they came.
Language is lost. Traditions are lost. Descendants are lost.
That’s what happened to the Nehantics when a combination of disease, outward migration, intermarriage and discrimination precipitated a population decline so steep that it led to the sale of their reservation and an 1870 declaration by the state that the tribe had become extinct.
“The land didn’t talk to them anymore, so they didn’t remember,” Brule said.
Brule grew up in Massachusetts along the Connecticut River. He didn’t know at the time he was a descendant of Nehantics who could be traced to at least the 1600s. It took genealogical research by one of his cousins to amplify the whispered secrets of his past and bring him back to the bluffs of Niantic.
John Pfeiffer, a Lyme-based archeologist whose research further helped Brule reclaim his roots, said the Nehantics’ 300-acre reservation in the Black Point area was conferred to the tribe by the state legislature in 1671. Two hundred years later, the few remaining members secured a promise from the state to protect the burial ground in perpetuity while selling off the rest.
Brule said he and other descendants brought into the fold through Pfeiffer’s research are committed to rediscovering the origins of a tribe that existed for thousands of years along the eastern half of the state’s coastline and into Rhode Island.
The descendants, plus Pfeiffer as an adopted member, have formed a tribal council led by Chief Ray Tatten of Bridgeport.
“We are trying to regroup our diaspora, call people back and share our common heritage,” Brule said. “I hope so far we are not representing a challenge to any other groups, whether they’re tribal or non tribal. We’re just trying to see how we fit into the fabric of the community.”
The tribe is not recognized by the state or federal governments. That’s fine with Pfeiffer and Brule.
Pfeiffer said he doesn’t find governmental recognition necessary.
“If we recognize who we are, why do we need to be recognized by the federal government,” he said. “Same thing for the state. We know who we are. And I think everyone else is gaining the understanding of who we are.”
He said his role as an anthropologist and archaeologist is to help people understand their roots, their tradition and their cultural connections.
“That’s my job, not to get federally recognized and somehow become ‘wealthy Indians,’” he said, emphasizing quotation marks around the stereotypical and inaccurate term.
There has, however, been an attempt to gain acknowledgment for the Nehantics. According to The Day archives, a letter of intent to file for federal recognition was submitted by Jerry A. Walden of Chester in 1997. It is unclear what happened to the petition from the self-employed pest control professional who incorporated the now-defunct Nehantic Tribe and Nation nonprofit organization.
Walden did not return a call for comment.
Walden’s letter listed a three-person governing board composed of himself and two Waldens from Portland. The members cited “a tribal core” that had been in continual existence.
“Moreover, when we say we are gathering our scattered families, it is because we seek to enlarge our tribal strength, just as the (Mashantucket) Pequots did before they were granted Congressional recognition,” the letter stated.
Brule said he has not met Walden. While he was not certain of the status of the letter, he said he assumes it’s no longer valid.
“He kind of filed that without really having any documentation or contact with anybody who was a known Nehantic descendant,” Brule said. “He claimed that he would be representing that community, but has not done any work since.”
Brule described the timing of the late 1990s petition as uncomfortable, coming as it did when other tribes in the state were vying for recognition and the potential for federal benefits and the right to operate a casino.
“We’re not into that. We’re working on restoring and regrouping and bringing our scattered families and diaspora back together,” he said.
It’s a “dead letter” he hopes doesn’t resurface.
A call to the Office of Federal Acknowledgment, an agency within the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, to ascertain the status of the letter was not returned.
The most visible manifestation of the Nehantic descendants’ mission involves “restoring the sanctity” of the burial grounds at McCook Point, according to Brule. That includes moving modern statutes to another area of the park and establishing quiet places of reflection with memorials befitting indigenous culture.
Brule described the town’s Parks and Recreation department as supportive, citing a series of three signs erected in the park to explain the history of the Nehantics and show who they are today.
The cemetery, identified by a stone marker at McCook Point Park as the burying ground of the extinct tribe, has been estimated by Pfeiffer to contain the bodies of more than 450 Nehantics.
Developer James Luce in 1886 successfully lobbied the state General Assembly to grant his request to buy the cemetery and move the remains, according to Pfeiffer. But the anthropologist estimated only about half a dozen bodies were moved to nearby Union Cemetery at the developer’s behest.
Pfeiffer said studying the history of the Nehantics became his life’s work in the latter half of the 1980s with the discovery of bones in a residential basement and in the streets of the growing beach community.
He described a 1986 archaeological excavation prompted by artifacts and remains that were found under the foundation of one resident’s home. The investigation ultimately yielded four or five burials. In 1988, digging prompted by a sewer project led to more.
“There were literally bones everywhere,” he said.
Subsequent research revealed the state had no title for the cemetery it sold to Luce, according to Pfeiffer. When he brought the issue to the state attorney general at the time, he was told he had no legal right to complain because he was not a Native American.
He said the situation prompted him “to start doing a lot of research to find descendants of the Nehantics.” He used documents including 18th and 19th century reservation lists, land records, probate lists, US Census data and personal diaries.
“Over the next 30 years, we were able to find two families that we could categorically prove were descendants of those people interred in the cemetery,” he said.
One of those is the Jeffrey family from which Brule is descended. He said many ancestors chased work up and down the Connecticut River Valley or ended up out West. One common place to find Nehantic descendants today is Brothertown, Wis., where Christian members of numerous southern New England tribes came together in the 1700s to preserve their culture and identity.
Pfeiffer, who said it took him more than 30 years to make the definitive connection, said the Jeffrey and Tatten families represent between 200 and 250 living descendants.
“So we have a reasonable number of Nehantics between those two families. But we are nowhere near complete in this process,” he said.
Nearing completion of a book three years in the making, Pfeiffer is currently looking for a publisher for “Coloring Nehantic.” One theme of the book is the connection between Native and African Americans, with Nehantic descendants playing active roles in the abolitionist and civil rights movements.
Brule said the tribal council is planning an election in August under the Sturgeon Moon during which members from places like Arizona, Arkansas, Illinois, Iowa, Massachusetts and Wisconsin will visit to “confirm and enlarge” the formative, four-member tribal council.
Some say the term for the August supermoon comes from Algonquin tribes in the northeast as a commentary on increased numbers of large, armored sturgeon at that time of the year.
Brule said the descendants have incorporated the sturgeon into the Nehantic Native Nation logo because Pfeiffer’s archaeological digs unearthed many bones and plates from the tough exterior shell of the fish.
The US Atlantic sturgeon, though classified as threatened in Connecticut, is not extinct.
Pfeiffer described more than three decades of research into the Nehantic people as all consuming. He said he was motivated to right a wrong perpetrated by the state with the declaration of extinction and the failure to keep its promise to preserve the burying grounds in perpetuity.
“I said, ‘OK, we’re going to do this step by step and make them recognize the fact that they can declare somebody extinct, but they can’t make it stick,” he said.
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