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Mohegan;s Tantaquidgeon Museum re-opens

Facility director named medicine woman

UNCASVILLE, Conn. - Those who like their museums up close, personal and traditional will welcome the news that the Mohegan Tribe;s newly refurbished Tantaquidgeon Museum has re-opened.

The museum holds an exquisite collection of objects documenting the tribe's existence from time immemorial to the present, including stone tools and weapons, artifacts, utensils, photographs, personal items, baskets, clothing, artwork and more, as well as a collection of artifacts from southwestern Plains Indians.

The collection is housed in a fieldstone building with a warm interior of wood beams and panels that was built during the Great Depression by John Tantaquidgeon, former Mohegan chief, and his son, Harold, both of whom were stone masons. The museum is the oldest American Indian-owned and operated museum in the country.

Its re-opening coincides with the appointment of Melissa Tantaquidgeon Zobel, the museum director, to the position of medicine woman.

Zobel 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. She was John Tantaquidgeon's daughter.

In naming Zobel medicine woman, the council of elders stated in part that ''Melissa Tantaquidgeon Zobel is a person whose traditional wisdom, knowledge and advice are sought for improving and preserving the spiritual, physical and emotional health of individual tribal members and for promoting harmony and well-being within the tribe.''

Zobel said her role is spiritual and traditional, but does not include the practice of traditional plant medicine.

Gladys Tantaquidgeon mentored Zobel since her childhood days growing up in the Mohegan Hills section of Uncasville, which is named after a 17th century Mohegan sachem.

''Our last hereditary sachem was the owner of that little basket right there - Noah Uncas,'' Zobel told a visitor.

As part of her training under Gladys Tantaquidgeon, Zobel learned the tribe's history and traditions; and she is the tribal historian in addition to her new title of medicine woman. Zobel has so absorbed Mohegan history and the ancestors who peopled it that in telling their stories, Zobel makes them come alive as if all of time is happening in the present.

''There's a story about him and his wife that's kind of interesting. They were so destitute they were selling baskets and staying in people's barns. And so for a night in a barn and some bread they sold this basket to a woman and it became a family legend in her family because she wrote up the whole story,'' she said.

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''There were betel nuts inside the basket. They're from Polynesia, but Indians around here used them because they gave a good stain, an ochre stain. They must have gotten them through trade, because we were very big into whaling. Anyway, so there were betel nuts and also a little dog tag and a handle in the basket and the woman [who gave the basket back to the tribe] said, 'You know, my dog chewed off this handle that was on here, and here's the handle, and here's the dog tag.'

''So she was really the keeper of this information and it's all inside this little basket, but that's the only thing we have from Noah Uncas, our last hereditary sachem, because things were very bad for us back then. He died in 1848.''

Mohegan chiefs have been elected since then.

The state of Connecticut outlawed sachems in 1768 as part of its policy to eliminate indigenous peoples by quashing their cultures, languages and religions through assimilation and other means. The Mohegans used the word ''chief'' from then on; but when they received federal acknowledgement in 1994, the tribe reinstated the term ''sachem'' and the late chief for life, Ralph Sturges, was allowed to carry that title.

Additions were added to the original 1931 museum building in the 1950s and 1960s to hold the growing numbers of artifacts that Gladys Tantaquidgeon, who studied anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, collected during her years in the Southwest as a BIA social worker and a representative of the Indian Arts and Crafts Board.

The ''stone room'' contains arrowheads and other objects that are 10,000 years old, and one of the museum's oldest post-contact objects: a wampum collar attributed to Uncas with a design that is said to represent the division that took place between the Mohegans and the Pequots in the 17th century.

Another room contains a vast number of artifacts from Southwestern tribes, including some beautiful baskets. But not all of the museum's collections are on display. An ''enormous collection of tribal items'' is stored in a special climate-controlled environment in the tribal office where the archivist works.

''I think it probably makes her very nervous to have all this stuff up here because it's so touchable and out and open, but we're trying to preserve the feel for what the original collection here was.''

What if something breaks, or if it decays and crumbles?

''Maybe it was meant to and maybe it's important for the next generation to make one just like it, and so we try to have folks replicate things.

''Things can't be preserved forever. I guess that's one of our messages: You can't keep everything in a glass case. You need to pass things on to the next generation. That's the most important thing - teaching children, and not just Indian children. Everyone is realizing now that it's important for use to learn each other's cultures.''

Zobel is the author of the prize-winning 1995 history ''The Lasting of the Mohegans.'' She also paid tribute to her mentor in a biography called ''Medicine Trail: the Life and Lessons of Gladys Tantaquidgeon.''

The museum, located at 1819 Norwich-New London Turnpike, is open Wednesdays through Saturdays through October, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is free. For more information, call (860) 848-0594.