For the first time in history, on November 5, Mashantucket Pequot tribal members, dignitaries, and guests gathered to celebrate the Mashantucket Pequot flag being raised over the Connecticut State Capitol to honor Native American Heritage Month.
Mashantucket Chairman Rodney Butler told ICTMN that having the flag fly over the capitol was another step in the tribal nation’s healing process. This is the third year that Heritage Month has been celebrated at Connecticut’s capitol. “We have come full circle,” Butler said. “The intergenerational wounds will never be forgotten, but as we continue to heal we make progress—for us and the Mohegans, for the other state tribes, and for the state itself.”
At last year’s Heritage Month celebration, Councilwoman Fatima Dames noticed the Irish flag flying at the capitol and asked Scott Allen Barton, who works for Dames, if there was a way to have their own flag flown. “We filled out the paperwork with the state and they approved it, and for the first time, for one week, our flag flew at the capitol.”
The celebration took place beneath the scornful faces of the statues of the state’s colonial founders, at least two of whom had been responsible for the death of hundreds of Pequots in 1637.
According to the Pequot War website, the May 26, 1637 Pequot massacre began when Captain John Mason realized there were too many people to kill by the sword. The site quotes a passage in which Mason said, “We must burn them,” and immediately stepping into a wigwam where he had been before, brought out a firebrand, and putting it into the matts with which they were covered, set the wigwams on fire.”
The Pequot population had already been reduced from 8,000 to 4,000 following a smallpox epidemic that lasted from 1633-1634, and the tribe was further decimated by the Pequot War, which lasted from 1637 until 1638.
Heritage Month was first celebrated in Connecticut after State Representative Ernest Hewett, who served as Master of Ceremonies for the flag raising event, introduced House Bill 5054, an act to establish Native American Heritage Month in 2013. Hewett said his next goal will be to remove the statue of Mason from the state capitol.
Other politicians gathered to honor the day, including Connecticut's Secretary of State Denise Merrill, who spoke about the progress tribes have made over the last 50 years. She recalled how her own family’s history of Cherokee ties was buried, even though her mother was born on a reservation in Oklahoma. “It is only our generation that has sought to uncover it,” she said. “I am glad we are having this celebration. We are acknowledging a long overdue appreciation of your contribution to our country and our culture.”
“We have always been here and aren't we proud and thankful we are still here. The fact that we persevered and stayed on our land, the fact that we were not relocated, means that all of our traditional medicine, all of our ancestors, all those we cared about and follow in their path, are here and we are proud to follow in their footsteps,” Mohegan Chief Marilyn Malerba, also known as Many Hearts, told the audience.
Wayne Reels, Mashantucket director of Cultural Resources, shared a story that ended the ceremony with laughter and good will. “When they first came over on the boats, they gave us mirrors and bells and they called them trinkets. We gave them furs... I don’t know if it was an even trade, but we liked what we got and they liked what they got.”
The crowd broke into laughter, and Reels continued: “So we are going to celebrate our heritage, we are going to celebrate what was left to us, because what we do, right now, this morning, was outlawed. What we do, right now, this morning, people died for. People went underground to form societies to uphold the cultural and traditional ways because when Europeans first came here they couldn't understand our way of life. So this morning we are going to dance to honor Creator for giving us these ways and for sustaining us.”
Following the event, a Round Dance was held with the Little Fox Dance Troupe, the youngest members of the Mashantucket Tribal Nation.
Chairman Butler summed up the day by saying the flag raising proved it is possible to “work together to really focus on the future, and how we can work together collectively to build a better nation for everybody. We have rebuilt a relationship that we lost centuries ago. Those wounds are fresher for those tribes decimated in the 18th and 19th century. We were decimated in the 16th century, so we have had some time to think about those wounds. We have risen from our ashes and we continue to learn. We welcome all of our sister nations in this great state of Connecticut to join us in this journey.”