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Mohegan elder passes; Gladys Tantaquidgeon leaves trail of life at 106 years

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UNCASVILLE, Conn. -- Gladys Tantaquidgeon, matriarch and preserver of
Mohegan tribal culture, passed away Nov. 1 at her home on Mohegan Hill. She
was 106.

In a life which began in the 19th century on June 15, 1899, and ended in
the 21st, she was a leader, not only in saving Mohegan tribal identity but
in introducing an Indian perspective into academic anthropology.

Without attending high school, she gained an Ivy League education at the
University of Pennsylvania, published scholarly articles and received
honorary degrees from the University of Connecticut and Yale University.

Her career included scholarly fieldwork with tribes from Virginia to
northern Canada and service with the BIA on Lakota and Dakota reservations.
With members of her family she founded the Tantaquidgeon Museum in
Uncasville in 1931, the oldest of America's Indian-run museums. Her
devotion to preserving Mohegan history and folklore is credited with
smoothing the path to the tribe's federal recognition in 1994.

She was a 10th-generation descendant of Tantaquidgeon, the chief aide to
Uncas, founder of the Mohegan tribe. (The name means "going along fast.")
According to "Medicine Trail" (University of Arizona Press, 2000), a
prize-winning biography by her grand-niece, Melissa Tantaquidgeon Zobel, at
the age of five she was chosen by three elders to learn Mohegan herbal
lore. She called the women -- her great-aunt Emma Baker, her maternal
grandmother Lydia Fielding and Mercy Ann Nonesuch Mathews -- her
grandmothers.

She also received instruction in deeper matters from her great-aunt Fidelia
Fielding, the last fluent speaker of the Mohegan-Pequot dialect. (Fidelia
Fielding declined to teach Tantaquidgeon the language for fear that the
young girl's non-Indian educators would punish her for speaking it.)

Anthropologist Frank Goldsmith Speck recognized special qualities in
Tantaquidgeon during his frequent visits with the Mohegans. In 1919 he
brought her to the University of Pennsylvania as his anthropological
assistant. She also worked with Franz Boaz, the pioneering researcher of
American Indians often called the "Father of American Anthropology."

According to her great-niece, however, Tantaquidgeon's Native insights
"leapfrogged" the limitations of her Euro-centric mentors. She took
seriously the lore of the makiawisug, "the little people," and their leader
Granny Squannit, and the giant Moshup, who lived near the whales. She
traced similar lore among other Algonquian peoples. (Granny Squannit and
Moshup were married, and it was common in New England tribes to say during
a storm that the two were fighting.) She also learned the lore of the Lenni
Lenape (Delaware), traditionally the tribe of origin for eastern
Algonquians. Her treatise "A Study of Delaware Indian Medicine Practice and
Folk Beliefs" appeared in 1941 and was later reissued as "Folk Medicine of
the Delaware and Related Algonkian Indians."

After her academic work, she joined the Indian Service Department of
Education to distribute educational grants to New England tribal members.
In 1934, commissioner of Indian Affairs John Collier personally recruited
her to work on the Yankton Sioux Reservation in South Dakota. Her social
work took her to the Pine Ridge, Rosebud and Santee Sioux reservations as
well. In 1938 she joined the newly organized Federal Indian Arts and Crafts
Board and expanded her travels through the Dakotas, Montana and Wyoming.

In 1947, however, she returned home, plagued by the ill health that her
biographer said often afflicted Mohegans away from home. She took a job in
the library of the nearby woman's prison in Niantic, where she said she
could understand the problems of the inmates because of the conditions she
had seen on the reservations. She became a tribal leader and local
celebrity, once featured in Mademoiselle magazine. She also continued her
education through the Tantaquidgeon Museum, conducting tours for local
schoolchildren and world travelers alike.

In 1978, the Mohegan Tribe applied for federal recognition, and
Tantaquidgeon devoted the next 16 years to historical research supporting
the effort. When acknowledgement came in 1994, her biographer recounts her
saying soberly, amid the general rejoicing, "That's wonderful. Now what do
we do next?"

Other leaders had already planned a casino, now one of the world's most
profitable. Chief Ralph Sturges recalled that he went to her with the
plans. Although she wouldn't say if she approved of gaming or not, he told
a local paper, she said to him, "Chief, if that's what you think will do
the tribe good, then we'll back you up."

Unlike many other tribal casinos, the Mohegan Sun reflects tribal lore
throughout its richly decorated expanse. At its original entrance stands a
life-size statue of Tantaquidgeon in her ceremonial regalia.