Published in August 1992, "The Elder" is a profile of Gladys Tantaquidgeon, medicine woman for the Mohegan tribe and an anthropologist whose life's work helped preserve not only Mohegan culture, but that of other Native tribes around the U.S.
Two years after this article was published, the Mohegan nation finally received federal recognition, an effort aided in large part by genealogical records preserved by Gladys. (That recognition allowed the establishment of the Mohegan Sun casino in 1996.) Gladys passed away in 2005 at the age of 106. In 2008 Mohegan historian Melissa Tantaquidgeon Zobel (Melissa Fawcett-Sayet at the time this article was written) became the tribe's new medicine woman.
This article is being posted to the web in July 2021 as part of Connecticut Magazine's 50th anniversary celebration.
At 93, Gladys Tantaquidgeon is the cultural guardian and spiritual leader of the Mohegan Nation.
By Pat Grandjean
Her surname means “fast runner," but Gladys Tantaquidgeon’s gait is more deliberate these days as she moves through her family's repository of Native American history and culture, Montville’s Tantaquidgeon Indian Museum. Stopping at one exhibit, she pulls out a tiny woven basket from 1860 and tells yet another story.
It seems that, in Mohegan Indian culture, baskets like this were used to put food out for the makiawisug, or “little people"—magical, mischievous beings (much like leprechauns or fairies) believed to live in underground burrows in the woodlands. Legend has it that if you don’t leave gifts for the little people— preferably snacks of cornbread and meat— from time to time, they may play pranks on you.
Some Mohegans have enjoyed a better rapport with the makiawisug than others. One such fortunate soul was Gladys’ grand-aunt Fidelia Fielding. “I remember one family Thanksgiving dinner—I might have been 6 or 7 years old at the time— when she said to my mother, ’I want to step outside for a while and talk to the little people,’” Gladys recalls. “But when she came back, she wouldn’t tell us what they talked about.”
It's hard to believe this droll, diminutive, intellectually curious Mohegan Indian woman is 93 years old. It’s even harder to believe that, despite a lifetime spent as cultural guardian and spiritual guide to her tribe, she has yet to be officially recognized. But the waiting is over. On Aug. 22, in a public ceremony at Fort Shantok Stale Park in Montville, Gladys Tantaquidgeon will finally be installed as the Mohegan Nation’s de facto medicine woman.
What took so long? Well, according to Gladys’ grand-niece and Mohegan tribal historian Melissa Fawcett-Sayet, who lives in Norwich, in recent decades it hasn’t been socially acceptable—particularly in the eyes of the non-Indian world—to be designated as “medicine woman." But the cultural tide is turning, and Native American traditions are better respected nowadays. “Partly in response to all the hullabaloo over the Columbus Quincentenary," Fawcett-Sayet says, “Congress has declared this the year of the American Indian. That’s been extremely rejuvenative for Native American peoples. It has inspired a lot of revivals of our customs and cultures.”
To fully understand Gladys Tantaquidgeon's contribution to Mohegan culture, one needs a brief history lesson. The Mohegan story begins in the early 17th century, when a splinter group left the northern New York state tribe, the Mohicans (themselves an offshoot of the Lenm Lenape, or Delaware Indians of Oklahoma), and began to push their way across Connecticut. Their aggressive behavior toward other Indian tribes earned them the nickname “Pequotaug,” for destroyer.
Ultimately, the Pequots settled on the east and west sides of what’s now known as the Thames River, under the dominion of the sachem Sassacus. Their territory encompassed what are now the towns of New London, Waterford, Groton, Ledyard and Stonington. But with the arrival of English Colonists in the 1630s. Uncas— an unruly undersachem to Sassacus—defected from the Pequots and established a new tribe under the Pequots’ original name, Mohegan (for “wolf people”), in the town of Montville.
At the outset, Uncas saw great advantages in taking a risk other Native American tribes avoided—forging an alliance with the British Colonists. “He was an absolute and total believer in his posterity,” Fawcett-Sayet says. “He wanted to be sure there was a future for his heirs.” Because he decided to cooperate with the burgeoning dominant culture. Fawcett-Sayet feels he helped the tribe fend off assimilation and aggression at the hands of the whites. “When you see the vast death by disease of many Indians through history, and the vast death by warfare, he seems to have had tremendous foresight," she adds. “The reason we still have a culture when so many East Coast Indian tribes do not is because of the decisions he made."
Uncas proved his loyalty to the Colonies by aiding in their victory during King Philip’s War of 1675, a revolt begun by the Wampanoags of Massachusetts against the foreigners taking over their lands. (The war’s outcome virtually extinguished every Native American tribe in New England except the Mohegan.) Throughout the 18th and much of the 19th century, the Mohegans' relationship with the Connecticut government was marred by land-ownership disputes. Finally, in 1861, the Mohegan people voted to assert their autonomy by eliminating the reservation system, thus ridding themselves of the divisive influence of federal Indian agents. Despite the loss of tribal lands, at present roughly 200 of the 907 living members of the Mohegan Nation still reside in Connecticut.
“The Mohegans have a strong sense of community,” says Trudie Lamb Richmond, a Schaghticoke Indian who is director of education at the Institute for American Indian Studies in Washington. “They lost their reservation, but a small nucleus of them remained and held onto their traditions and their beliefs. If it were not for this small nucleus, there would probably be no visible Mohegan tribe today. Their determination has kept them alive.”
Like many other Indian tribes at the turn of the 20th century, however, the Mohegans were experiencing a crisis of confidence over their own self-worth and the value of continuing their traditions. It was during this time that Gladys Tantaquidgeon—bom in 1899 to John Tantaquidgeon, a carpenter, and his wife, Harriet Fielding Tantaquidgeon—was lucky enough to fall under the influence of some of the Mohegans' strongest traditionalists.
Gladys spent her early school years at home in Montville under the tutelage of three older women she called her “grandmothers,” even though not all of them were blood relations. Lydia Fielding (her true maternal grandmother), Mercy Ann Nonesuch Mathews and Emma Baker (at the time, the Mohegans’ medicine woman) began training Gladys at the age of 5 in folklore and herbal medicine.
She also won the affection of her reclusive grand-aunt Fidelia Fielding, one of the last full-blooded Mohegans and the last speaker of the Mohegan-Pequot dialect. “She was pretty much of a loner—she didn’t mix in too well with the group," Gladys now says of Fielding, who was known to shun both Mohegan community projects and her non-Indian neighbors. “But she took a liking to my mother, and used to spend time with us at meals." She delighted in teaching Gladys about the legends or the makiawisug.
Around the time Gladys was 9 years old, Fielding designated her to become the tribe’s cultural custodian by presenting her with a beaded belt that had belonged to Fielding's grandmother. Nearly 200 years old. and decorated with crosses (to symbolize the four winds) and a "sacred tree that grows from the earth to the sky," it's one of Gladys' most prized possessions,
Though it might seem strange that such a young child would he designated for culture-hero status, Fawcett-Sayet says it wasn't odd at all. In fact, Gladys' own eagerness to learn was a big factor. "She was an extremely brilliant, exceptional child," Fawcett-Sayet says. "But had she not shown interest, she would not have been chosen. In Indian culture, people are catapulted into leadership positions from a very young age. If we see someone who has a particular talent or bent, we cultivate it. It was a survival skill that a tiny, struggling nation had to develop."
It also isn’t surprising that cultural guardianship of the Mohegans has been handed down through the women of the tribe. "Many of the Indian tribes of the Northeast are matriarchal in that way," Richmond says. "I never experienced sexism growing up," Fawcett-Sayet adds. "It was something I gained strength from— there was never a fight for dominance, or competition. Men and women really seemed to have a sense of their own value within the culture. The idea that a woman would strive to reach the limits of her abilities is not odd to the Mohegans."
Had she not met Frank Speck, Gladys might never have expanded her knowledge beyond her immediate culture. An anthropology student at Columbia University in the early 1900s, Speck was the son of longtime friends of the Tantaquidgeons. "His family used to have a summer home in Niantic,” she recalls.
Speck participated in the school of salvage" anthropology, whereby researchers scoured the country trying to find and preserve fading languages and cultures. He endeared himself to the Mohegans by virtue of being a non-abrasive personality who was willing to learn whatever the tribe wanted to share. In turn, his enthusiasm helped revive the tribe's appreciation of its heritage.
One of his earliest coups was convincing Fidelia Fielding lo record for posterity the Mohegan-Pequot dialect—a language she had previously refused to pass on because she had been punished for speaking it as a child. Speck also took note of Gladys’ precocious fascination with Native American
tradition. "I was just very small, so I don’t remember this," Tantaquidgeon says. "But my mother said that he said to me, 'Hurry and grow up, Gladys. When you get to be a big girl and I get married, my wife and I will come and take you home with us.’ And he did."
From the time Gladys turned 11 years old, Speck look her on as protege. She traveled with him and his wife up and down the East Coast and spent summers at their home at Cape Ann, Mass., in the company of artists, professors and members of other Algonkian language tribes. Despite the fact that her formal schooling was spotty—she never attended high school—in 1919 Speck arranged for her to study anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania (he was then chairman of the department).
Pursuing studies in American ethnology, Gladys spent six years at UPenn. (Because she lacked a high school diploma, however, she never officially matriculated.) Ironically enough, during this period, she lived with the foreign students at the university’s International House. “It’s the funniest thing,” Fawcett-Sayet says. "I mean, what’s less foreign than an Indian student? But then it wasn’t considered strange—after all, Indians were a little different.”
Though Gladys now denies that she felt all that different at school and recalls her experiences at the International House fondly because she "came in contact with students from all over the world,” Fawcett- Sayet suspects that she may have felt somewhat isolated socially. "Gladys is in many ways totally and completely an academic,” Fawcett-Sayet says. “She immersed herself in the company of other academics, with whom she had a common scholarly goal. The student body was not her interest."
Academically, Fawcett-Sayet sees Gladys as a "phenomenon.” “The fact that she had these sophisticated abilities and this almost chameleonlike ability to adapt into non-Indian academia is just very, very weird,” Fawcett-Sayet says. "Even her grammatical sophistication in speaking is very strange. There just aren’t very many Indians of her generation with her credentials. It’s set her apart and made her a real oddity, a force to be reckoned with."
Following her studies at UPenn, Gladys spent a number of years engaged in field research, focusing on the medicine and folklore of the Gay Head and Mashpee (both from Massachusetts) and the Delaware Indians. Through her work with the Delaware tribe’s medicine man Witapanoxwe (“Walks with Daylight”), she developed a greater understanding of the related practices of the Mohegans. Her work in this area culminated in a senes of magazine and journal articles and the 1972 book, Folk Medicine of the Delaware and Related Algonkian Indians.
In 1934, Speck recommended Gladys for a new position with the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs. She was invited to Washington, D C. to meet with the director of the bureau, Commissioner John Collier. “I was scared to death,” she recalls. “But I went in, and here was this quiet little man. We had a good conversation and he told me they were wanting to start a new position of community worker, out in South Dakota with the Yangton Sioux.”
Though she accepted the job, the prospect of being the federal government’s first Native American specialist was frightening, too. “When I first went into that part of the country, I knew there were certain places where government workers weren’t too popular,” Gladys says. “I didn’t speak the language of the people I worked with; they didn’t speak English. I wondered whether I’d be well received.” But it wasn’t long before Gladys' co-worker and interpreter, a full-blooded Rosebud Sioux woman named Nellie Buffalo Chief, brought her a heartening message. "She told me, ‘Grandmother White Tallow [a Sioux elder] likes you. She calls you granddaughter.’"
Through much of the two years she spent as community worker, Gladys was occupied in what Fawcett-Sayet calls “burnout work." She helped the Sioux obtain basic necessities: food, shelter, clothing, medicine and educational services. Her most painful tasks included dressing a baby for burial and transporting a dying snakebite victim to the hospital. Often, the people were too shy to ask for assistance. “We always left our office door open, but they didn't always want to come in. One man hung around outside our door for days. As it turned out, all he needed was an overcoat."
In 1937, Gladys transferred to the Indian Arts and Crafts Board, a newly formed agency devoted to the development of Native American crafts. She traveled to several reservations in the Dakotas, Wyoming and Montana and encouraged the tribes to use their creative talents as a means of economic support, as well as passing these skills on to their children. She also arranged for exhibits of outstanding Indian crafts at museums all over the United States and brushed up her own skills in Mohegan finger weaving and beadwork.
This training came in handy when she returned home 10 years later to run the family's Tantaquidgeon Indian Museum, a structure located in the backyard of the Tantaquidgeon family home. Built in 1931, the museum—which was constructed by Gladys’ father and younger brother Harold of fleldstone found on the grounds—was initially designed to showcase Mohegan artifacts, particularly those that had been made and used by the Tantaquidgeon family themselves. Over the years, however, they had acquired a number of artifacts from other Eastern Woodland Indian tribes (composed of Native Americans living as far north as eastern Canada to as far south as the Carolinas) as well.
Gladys set about developing the museum as a community cultural resource. Up until his death at age 84 in 1989, Harold was her alter ego in this endeavor. While Gladys would conduct tours of the interior of the museum, telling visitors all about Native American medicine lore and history, Harold would meet guests at an outdoor “get acquainted” area complete with specially constructed Mohegan village and long- house. where they might learn to grind corn or make stone tools.
Like his sister, Harold was a rare individual. An accomplished outdoorsman who had served in the Home Guard during World War I, he was awarded a Purple Heart for his service as an Air Force tail- gunner during World War II. Shot down on one mission in the summer of 1944, he helped keep the crew alive through 23 days spent stranded in a New Guinea jungle. Graced with the honorary title of Mohegan tribal chief in 1952, he also distinguished himself through his lifelong involvement with the Boy Scouts, beginning as the director of an Indian village built at Camp Wakenah on Montville's Gardner Lake.
“Personalitywise, I felt Gladys and Harold worked well together," Fawcett- Sayet says. “They were two totally different sides of the human psyche—one physical, one cerebral. I used to love listening to them when they would talk together. Amazingly enough, they never argued."
Though she was employed for years as librarian of the Women’s Correctional Center in Niantic, by 1960 Gladys had retired to run the museum full-time. She and Harold became known for their countless sessions with groups of students ranging from preschool to college age. “When I was growing up in Montville, the museum was in its heyday,” says Fawcett-Sayet, now 32. “They saw hundreds and hundreds of children daily. Every schoolchild in town went through those doors. They were both in their 60s, which is young by Indian terms—my uncle was still jumping rope with me, my aunt was still running with me. They were very vigorous people. And neither Harold nor Gladys got married, so they were totally devoted to their work. There was nothing else to distract their attention."
Fawcett-Sayet adds that the museum made the Tantaquidgeons the “heroes of the community” and solidified the positive relationship between Montville’s Mohegans and their non-Indian neighbors. “The fact that the museum was run free of charge gave people an impossible-to-tarnish image of the Indians.” she says. In turn. Montville came to think of preserving its Native American heritage "as everyone’s civic duly. It's a very unusual situation. Program in Indian history are now a major part of the school system."
School groups no longer pass through the doors of the Tantaquidgeon Indian Museum (Gladys says that after her brother’s death, the class tours became more than she could manage). Now, though it's open May through October only (call 848-9145 for hours), the museum retains its colorful vitality. “What makes it so special," says Richmond, “is that it's filled with wonderful stories. Gladys can tell you about every little artifact that’s there—each one has a meaning. That’s an important part of the oral tradition, that’s the way one passes down the culture.”
Upon entering, visitors are greeted by a prominent display of Mohegan wooden bowls, ladles and baskets—many of which were fashioned by Gladys' father, the last Mohegan basketmaker, and used around the Tantaquidgeon household for years. "He used oak splints for his baskets,” she explains. "Oak’s tough—it doesn't wear out.” Some of the baskets are hand-painted with the Mohegan Nation's key symbol— the four domes, which represent the spiritual force of the universe.
Other Eastern Woodland artifacts on display include dolls made from wishbones and corncobs (ecologically sound as well as creative), beaded handbags, contemporary marble sculptures by Mohegan artist Ralph Sturgis, ceremonial clothing, and a 200- year-old mortar and pestle, which was used to grind yokeag, or "traveling food," a corn mixture that was once the staple of the Mohegan diet. Suspended from the ceiling one sees a Penobscot Indian birchbark canoe that Harold Tantaquidgeon acquired during his teenage years, when he went to Maine with Frank Speck as research assistant for Speck’s book Penobscot Man. (A back room, added in 1958, displays artifacts of Native American tribes from the Southeast, Southwest, Northwest and Northern Plains.)
Everywhere one turns, one finds careful documentation of the history and fortunes of the Tantaquidgeon family. Pictures and photos of the family’s ancestors—Samson Occum, Fidelia Fielding, Mercy Ann Nonesuch Mathews, John and Harriet Tantaquidgeon—abound. More recent photos depict Melissa Fawcett's wedding on the grounds of the museum, and a 1987 ceremony at the University of Connecticut where Gladys was given an honorary doctorate.
One of the museum's proudest possessions is a full-length portrait of Harold Tantaquidgeon, dressed in traditional garb that includes his favorite headdress—a colorful “roach”- or “crest"-style ornament of dyed deer hair—traditionally worn by the Lenni Lenape. (This particular headpiece was a gift from Gladys' Delaware Indian mentor Witapanoxwe.) Letters and postcards written to Harold from all over the world cover a wallboard in the back room. Most are simply addressed with his personal mark, rather than a street, town and zip code. Recognized by post offices everywhere, it consists of a cross (symbolizing the four winds) surrounded by four dots (standing for the four ancestors after which Harold chose to model himself: Sassacus, Uncas, Tantaquidgeon—Uncas’ right-hand man—and Samson Occum, one of the founders of Dartmouth College).
Through the mid-1980s, Gladys combined her museum work with service on the Mohegan Tribal Council. She also served on the Institute for American Indian Studies' Native American Advisory Committee in that museum’s fledgling years. These days, she’s slowed down a little. Much of her time, she says, is taken up with answering letters and phone calls from a small but hardy band of the curious who have read James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, and want to know more about the tribe in Connecticut that's descended from them. And though Gladys tries to keep up with her reading, she doesn't feel she knows enough about current affairs to pontificate on contemporary Native American issues, or even the significance of the Mashantucket Pequot gambling casino in Ledyard. Still, she's not complaining. "I feel very fortunate. I don’t have any aches and pains," she says. “I forget things once in a while, but everyone says everyone forgets, so I’m not alone.”
For her part, Fawcett-Sayet marvels at her grand-aunt’s vitality. The two banter affectionately, like peers, but with great respect. Gladys refers to Melissa as “my right hand"; Melissa always calls her grandaunt “Gladdie.” “When I was growing up— particularly when I was in college and working at the museum more full-time— she was my friend, not my elderly aunt,” Fawcett-Sayet says. “People would say, ‘You want to spend all day with an 80-year- old? That doesn't seem like much fun.’ But it was—I always felt I had a lot in common with her. She has an incredible zest for life. She doesn’t think as if she’s going to die tomorrow. The first thing she said when we told her about her installation as medicine woman a year-and-a-half ago was ’Count me in—I’ll do what I can to help out.' Most people would be worrying about how to carry a person that age to the ceremony."
Gladys notes that she hasn't been asked to “help out" yet. But she’s obviously looking forward to the ceremony. “I guess I'm the oldest one now,” she says quietly of her tribal status. "It’s a great honor to be selected to serve my group."