Mohegan Tribe restores ancestor's burial ground


By John Christoffersen -- Associated Press

NORWICH, Conn. (AP) - For centuries, the Mohegan Tribe tried to protect and reclaim a cemetery where its famous chief and other revered ancestors were buried. With few resources, the tribe had little leverage.

But after years of operating one of the world's largest casinos, the Mohegans are spending millions to buy back and restore the Royal Mohegan Burial Ground.

''The Royal Mohegan Burial Ground has been a source of anguish for the tribe since the 18th century,'' said Melissa Tantaquidgeon Zobel, the tribe's historian. ''We hope that we have lived up to their expectations and given them some peace.''

In a stark reversal of fortune, the federally recognized tribe of nearly 2,000 is giving this once-prosperous city $1 million for economic development and another $1 million to the Masons who operated a popular lodge on the site from the 1920s until it was demolished. The Mohegans spent another $1 million to demolish the Masonic temple last fall.

They are designing a burial ground that will pay homage to Chief Uncas and his descendants, who were mythologized in James Fenimore Cooper's book, ''The Last of the Mohicans.''

Presidents Andrew Jackson and William Taft, as well as Buffalo Bill, have paid visits to the burial ground at Sachem and Washington streets to honor Chief Uncas, an ally of English settlers.

''This is really the place where the two civilizations came together,'' Tantaquidgeon Zobel said. ''This is an extraordinary Indian burial ground. As Americans, we honor great colonial leaders. Naturally it seems appropriate to honor the great Indian leaders of the same period. In American history, sometimes we forget there is an ancient history here. It didn't start with George Washington.''

Uncas granted the settlers land that later became Norwich in return for a promise that his tribe would keep the burial ground, Tantaquidgeon Zobel said.

''In many ways, the restoration of this burial ground is fulfillment of the original agreement between Uncas and the original settlers of Norwich,'' Tantaquidgeon Zobel said. ''Uncas in many ways created a model of cooperation between settlers and Indians. He wasn't a pacifist by any means. He was someone who had a very definite vision of security for his people in very difficult times. He's probably the single greatest hero in Mohegan history.''

The Mohegans, who have dubbed the project ''The Lasting of the Mohegans,'' are among numerous tribes around the country who have long fought to reclaim ancestral burial grounds. The disputes can be costly and emotional, but few tribes have the Mohegans' resources.

''Tribes have essentially a go-for-broke mentality when it comes to protecting their culture and ancestors,'' said Gabriel Galanda, a Seattle attorney who represented a tribe in a protracted dispute over ancestral remains in Washington. ''Without their ancestors and culture, they have nothing.''

The exact location of Uncas' grave is unclear, possibly due to the secrecy that surrounded the burial of chiefs because of concerns that thieves would rob the graves, Tantaquidgeon Zobel said. Hundreds and possibly thousands of Mohegans were buried in the royal cemetery dating back at least to the 1600s, she said.

The Mohegans had tried to keep the 3.4-acre site undeveloped since the last tribal burial there in 1876, filing unsuccessful lawsuits in the 1890s and 1930s. The royal burial ground suffered a series of desecrations, according to the tribe.

In November, tribal leaders joined Queen Elizabeth II in London to pay tribute to a Mohegan chief who traveled to England to complain directly to the king about English settlers encroaching on tribal lands. The sachem, Mahomet Weyonomon, died of smallpox in 1736 while waiting to see King George II.

In 1928, the Masons built a large temple for the popular fraternal organization. But after years of declining membership and a building that required extensive repairs, the Masons agreed to relocate to make way for the tribe's plans.

''It took me three to four months before I drove there the first time,'' said Robert Stika, a Mason. ''That building means a lot to all the Masons who were raised there. It's a home away from home.''

By the end of the year, tribal members hope to visit the Royal Mohegan Burial Ground, surrounded by new historical monuments, to reflect on all that has transpired over the centuries.

''This goal created a lot of patience for a lot of generations of people,'' Tantaquidgeon Zobel said. ''I think the key is a belief that eventually the right thing would be done with a little persistence.''