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Mohegan Chief Ralph Sturges passes

NEW LONDON, Conn. - Mohegan Tribe Lifetime Chief Ralph Sturges died of lung cancer Sept. 30 at the age of 88, at Lawrence Memorial Hospital in New London, tribal officials announced.

Sturges was elected tribal chairman in 1990 and lifetime chief in 1992. He was instrumental in guiding the tribe to federal acknowledgement, which it received from the BIA in 1994. The federal status paved the way for the tribe to build its Mohegan Sun Casino. The casino has been the economic engine behind the tribe's expansion into other gaming venues and its efforts at language revitalization, the recovery of ancestral lands and artifacts, and historical preservation.

Tribal leaders and the community mourned Sturges' passing.

''It is with deep regret that I write to let you know that last night the Mohegan Nation lost one of its greatest leaders of modern time,'' Chairman Bruce ''Two Dogs'' Bozsum said in a prepared statement.

''The chief has been a symbol of who we are as a people and led us through the difficult process of federal recognition and the re-establishment of our homeland. We will miss his leadership and his passing leaves a void not easily filled in our tribal government. I know that many of us considered him a friend and person we could approach for advice on any issue. I know I did. At this time our thoughts and prayers are with the entire Sturges family,'' Bozsum said.

Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation Chairman Michael Thomas ordered the tribal flags at Mashantucket to be lowered in Sturges' honor.

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''It was with great sadness that we received the news of the passing of Chief Sturges. Chief Sturges was a valued leader of his people and an inspiration to Native peoples everywhere. We mourn his passing,'' Thomas said in a prepared statement.

Sturges was born in New London and traced his Mohegan ancestry through his mother's lineage. His great-grandmother was Emma Baker, an activist who pushed the state for a settlement of Mohegan land claims in the early 1900s. On his father's side were whaling captains whose ancestors probably came to America on the Mayflower.

Before becoming a tribal leader in his 70s and 80s, Sturges had a number of diverse careers. He was a payroll delivery man for an armored car company, a disaster relief coordinator, and public relations director for the Salvation Army. Sturges was also a sculptor whose works can be found at the state capitol, New London City Hall, Montville High School and the cornerstone of Mohegan Sun.

He served in an intelligence unit in New Guinea and the Philippines in the U.S. Army during World War II, earning a bronze star, tribal leaders said.

''On behalf of the people of Connecticut, I offer my deepest condolences to the Mohegan Tribe on the death of Lifetime Chief Ralph Sturges,'' Connecticut Gov. Jodi Rell said in a statement. ''He will be forever remembered for his contributions not only as a wise leader - having most notably served his people during their successful campaign for federal tribal recognition - but as a skilled sculptor.

''Chief Sturges also will be remembered for his service to the United States. ... The State of Connecticut and the Mohegan Tribe have lost a great friend and treasured talent, but in cherishing him we will maintain his spirit always.''

Sturges is survived by a son, two grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. His wife, Ida, died in May.