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Mohegan Medicine Woman wins $10,000 essay contest

UNCASVILLE, Conn. – The Mohegan Tribe’s Medicine Woman won $10,000 in an essay contest in which American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians were invited to share their perspectives on the challenges and opportunities in the current economic and political landscape.

Melissa Tantaquidgeon Zobel won a top national award for “The Accomac Business Model.” The contest, called “Native Insight: Thoughts on Recession, Recovery & Opportunity,” was sponsored by the Alaska Federation of Natives, in partnership with the National Congress of American Indians and the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement. The contest was launched in June and winners were announced at the end of October.

“The Accomac Business Model” argues for a Native values approach to doing business in the 21st century.

The world is catching up with indigenous values regarding respect for women and Mother Earth, Tantaquidgeon Zobel says, but when it comes to business “we have always been hesitant to assert our Native values. Deep down inside, we still assume that business is not our area of expertise. That is a mistake. Nowadays, the light of world opinion shines brightly on corporate greed, making this the perfect time to promote an alternative, Native, business paradigm.”

Tantaquidgeon Zobel said American Indians have learned to adapt over the centuries to conditions that changed their traditional way of life. From hunting, fishing and planting to feed their families, Native peoples became skilled at trades and now are lawyers, teachers, nurses, CEOs and other professionals. But they never abandoned their traditional ways; they just kept adding new ones.

“That’s the strength of Native societies. We do not sacrifice the old for the new.”

This broader view of things is called the Accomac perspective. Accomac in Mohegan means “the long view from across the water.”

The Mohegan Tribe began to create an Accomac Model of Business with a training program called “The Spirit of Aquai,” in which employees at the Mohegan Sun resort casino – one of the largest and most successful casinos in the country – are presented with traditional values of tribal conduct, such as respect for all people.

A good example of respect for all people is found in the tribal leaders’ approach to the various languages found at the casino.

“Many languages are spoken at our business and our chairman leads by example, attempting to address many different language speakers in their native tongue. As a typical Native community whose language was long forbidden in our local schools, we understand the importance of respecting people’s native tongues,” Tantaquidgeon Zobel said.

The Accomac Business Model – the broad view – also addresses how tribal communities spend money. Funds are primarily allocated to benefit the group, not the individual, and are usually expended both to preserve the past and move the next generation forward, Tantaquidgeon said.

“We consider not only where we come from, but where we are going many generations from now,” she said.

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For example, some of the first revenues from the Mohegan Sun were used to preserve and reclaim sacred sites, provide elders’ housing, health care and college tuition.

But sometimes the supporters of culture and business interests clash, not because the two sides have different goals, but because many Natives equate good business with the values of the non-Indian world.

“That means that many traditionally-minded folks feel compelled to oppose tribal business development, because they sense that it is eroding tribal culture,” she said.

But global values are changing and catching up to indigenous values, so there is no need for tribal communities to follow non-tribal business models.

“Now is a good time to consider something better. Only when we Natives conduct our businesses according to our own values will we truly flourish over the long term,” Tantaquidgeon Zobel said.

She was named the Mohegan Tribe’s Medicine Woman in the summer of 2008. She is the grand-niece of the iconic Gladys Tantaquidgeon, the tribe’s former medicine woman, revered elder and culture keeper, who passed away at the age of 106 in 2005.

Tantaquidgeon Zobel is also the tribal historian and a writer of non-fiction and fiction. She is the author of “Medicine Trail: The Life and Lessons of Gladys Tantaquidgeon” and “Oracles,” a novel.

She said she was very pleased to learn that she had won the essay contest and welcomed the $10,000 prize.

“As a writer, you don’t usually make much money. And I have five kids so there’s always a need,” she said.

Other national winners were Samantha Johnson, Sault Sainte Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, for “Native Americans & Small Business Ventures: Bright Hope for Economic Recovery” and Jacquelyn Dyer, Hopi, for “Plan for a New Native American Century.”

Three Alaska Native winners were Harold Frank Jr., Central Council Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribe of Alaska, for “Renewing Our Future,” Methanie Ongtooguk, Kotzebue/Fairbanks, for “America and the Whale: Strengthened Economy through Smaller Community,” and Charles W. Ralston, for “Alaska Native Corporations Can Provide International Benefits Through Marketing Carbon Offset.”

The Native Hawaiian winner was Lurline Wailana McGregor for “Economic Recovery Hawaiian Style.”

All of the essays can be read at