Mohegans’ ancient burial ground reclaimed and blessed

NORWICH, Conn. – The Mohegan Tribe has honored its ancestors with a ceremony blessing the restoration of the sacred Royal Mohegan Burial Ground.

Dozens of people gathered Aug. 15 on a three-acre parcel of land at Sachem and Washington streets in the city for the event, which opened with a prayer and smudging by Tribal Chairman Bruce “Two Dogs” Bozsum.

“The importance of this day means much more than words that I can say. We’re all here today to honor all of those who are here under us. To be together to witness something that happened [to those ancestors] is to right a great wrong that happened to the Mohegan people and I’m very happy to have all of you here today to celebrate this day with us. It means so much to all of our ancestors.”

John Henry Clark, chairman of the tribal Council of Elders, also welcomed the guests and thanked everyone “who worked at returning this sacred site to the Mohegan Tribe, this beautiful memorial to the Mohegans who passed before us.”

Flutist William “Dancing Shadow” Andrews, member of the tribe’s Unity of Nations drum group and the Council of Elders, performed music at the event.

The land represents only a small portion of the original 17-acre or more burial ground, which the tribe had fought to reclaim for more than 100 years. Through negotiations with federal, state and local governments, the tribe ultimately purchased the property for $1.1 million.

Until two years ago, the property held a Masonic Temple built in 1929. The temple was torn down in 2006, and in its place Mohegan designers and builders created a serene space of homage to the ancestors.

The memorial is designed around a central circle. Etched into the central stone are the words: “You now stand on the site of the Mohegan Tribe’s Royal Burial Ground. Here rest the remains of Mohegans whose graves were desecrated in their ancestral soil. May they rest in peace now and forever.”

When the Masons were erecting their temple, some of the ancestors’ remains were desecrated and dishonored, explained tribal member Throws His Hatchet.

“Some of the bodies were thrown into the river, some were carted off and burned, and some were carried off to the dump. Several years ago, I went to the Peabody to reclaim three of the remains that were buried here and the documentation proved that they came from here.”

The knowledge that other remains are buried under the entire site is very painful, he said.

Surrounding the central circle are 13 granite pillars engraved on top with the names of the moons in Mohegan and English. An outer circle of gray granite is embedded with oblongs of white granite at the four directions. Curved benches of carved granite provide seating. A granite walkway leads to the memorial center, and the entire site is landscaped with native plants, including 13 dogwoods that echo the pillars in the center.

Each piece of granite in the memorial walkway and center was custom designed and cut. All the construction and installation work was done by Mohegan tradesmen and craftsmen, said tribal member Jay Murtha, whose landscaping company performed the job.

During the ceremony, Bozsum and Mohegan medicine woman Melissa Tantaquidgeon Zobel read some of the names of those buried at the site – most of whom were 18th- and 19th-century descendants of Mohegan Sachem Uncas, whose life spanned parts of the 16th and 17th centuries.

Norwich Mayor Benjamin Lathrop and other dignitaries attended the ceremony. Lathrop said he practiced a week under Tantaquidgeon Zobel’s tutorship to deliver a short greeting in the Mohegan language.

“I’m honored to speak in the Mohegan tongue and I’m also honored to be here in tribute to the ancestral burial grounds of the Mohegan Tribal Nation,” he said.

Democratic state Rep. Tom Reynolds presented Bozsum with a proclamation from the General Assembly and praised the tribe for living by its values.

“This project did not have to happen. In purely economic terms it made no sense, but they choose to do it because it represents the values and traditions that they hold dear. And let that be a lesson to all of us to not just speak of values, but to live them and exemplify them, as this tribe does so often.”