A Visit to the Tantaquidgeon Museum

A Visit to the Tantaquidgeon Museum

“Father and brother Harold built the little stone original museum that was begun in 1930 and completed and opened in 1931. The purpose of this little stone room was to house our collection of various artifacts that had been made and used by our people and were scattered about our living quarters here and there so that not only our own people could enjoy them but others as well.” Gladys Tantaquidgeon, from “Medicine Trail: The Life and Lessons of Gladys Tantaquidgeon,” by Melissa Jayne Fawcett

Today’s column is a continuation of an occasional series where I share stories of our region’s past with a focus on interesting people and places here in The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor. The heritage corridor is home to a variety of historical organizations and museums who serve as caretakers for important stories and objects, bringing our shared heritage to life. Recently, I visited the Tantaquidgeon Museum in Uncasville, and I am pleased to share my experience.

Small in size but huge in the hearts of Mohegans, the Tantaqidgeon Museum is an important educational and cultural site for residents and visitors to Eastern Connecticut. The Mohegan Tribe has owned the museum for 14 years and has made significant enhancements to ensure the protection of sacred objects within the museum’s collection. It is the oldest Native American owned and operated museum in the country, celebrating its 90th anniversary this year.

Upon arrival at the museum, I was met by Greg Chapman, Mohegan Village Tradition Specialist. He maintains the authentic Mohegan structures on the museum grounds including a wigwam and longhouse made of tall bent saplings connected by twine made from plants and covered with large sheets of tree bark. Both buildings are used for demonstrating traditional Mohegan lifeways and are a favorite of schoolchildren of all ages. Entering the wigwam and longhouse I could appreciate the importance of these structures in educating visitors. Seeing them and sitting in them deepened, for me, the opportunity to understand the Mohegan way of life.

Greg also showed me a fenced garden where he grows the three most important vegetables for indigenous cultures from throughout the country. Known as the three sisters, corn, beans, and squash, they are planted in a symbiotic triad with beans planted at the base of the corn stalk to provide the beans support as they climb toward sunlight. The squash is planted around the beans to block the growth of shading weeds, and their large spiny leaves protect the corn and beans from garden-raiding animals.

The corn, beans and squash grown by Greg are from varieties used by indigenous cultures with some provided by other tribes specifically for use at the museum. His plan is to gather seed from these vegetables and provide the seeds to members of the Mohegan Tribe so they can grow the ancient varieties in their own gardens. It’s a wonderful way the museum is literally giving the tradition of the three sisters to their fellow Mohegans.

The grounds of the museum also include a large dugout canoe and a path of crushed clamshells meandering past important native plants, bushes and trees used by the Mohegans and other indigenous tribes of the region.

Following my tour of the museum grounds with Greg, I was introduced to Jason Lavigne for a tour inside the museum building. Jason has worked at the museum for several years and provided an in-depth look at the many objects on display as well as history of the museum and its founders John Tantaquidgeon, his son Harold and daughter Gladys.

The quote to start this column is from Gladys Tantaquidgeon, the renown Mohegan Medicine Woman and matriarch of the tribe. Along with her brother Harold, they offered tours of their museum for many years, introducing countless children to the ways and stories of the Mohegans. The museum also includes information about their fascinating lives and their many contributions to the Mohegan community and beyond. I was particularly interested in an exhibit about Harold’s experience in both World War II and the Korean War.

The museum building includes two rooms for exhibits and one for groups of children with child-friendly, hands-on activities. Jason explained each exhibit and pointed out specific objects of great significance to the Mohegans.

I was awe struck by a collar made of “wampum” worn by Mohegan Sachem Uncas (1598-1683), a “Friend of the English.” Uncas was the great sachem and leader of the Mohegans during the early years of European colonization and the ensuing upheaval of life among the indigenous people of southern New England. The collar has two white triangles depicting the 17th century division between Mohegan and Pequot villages. It is the only known New England wampum to continuously remain in Native American hands since the 1600s.

I was intrigued to learn the Mohegans of the 17th century created their own distinctive type of pottery known as Shatokware pottery. It is made from shell-tempered clay. The museum has a large pot on display that was excavated at Fort Shantok in the 1960s.

One of the more iconic artifacts on display is the Flying Bird Belt that was worn by three greatly influential Mohegan women: Martha Uncas (1769-1859), Fidelia Fielding (1827-1908) and Gladys Tantaquidgeon (1899-2005). These women maintained and kept alive many of the important Mohegan cultural traditions. I learned Fidelia Fielding was the last fluent speaker of the Mohegan-Pequot language. Efforts to restore the language are ongoing, and it is being taught to Mohegan tribal youth.

Following my tour of the museum we were joined by Stacy Dufresne, the collections manager/steward of the museum. She also manages the museum’s communications and Facebook page. We talked more about the museum, its history, Gladys and Harold Tantaquidgeon, and their positive impact on our understanding of the Mohegan tribe. I really appreciate the time Greg, Jason and Stacy gave me. I hope to visit the museum again in the near future.

I encourage folks to visit this special museum, especially this year on its 90th anniversary. For information on the museum hours, contact information, etc. go to the Tantaqidgeon Museum Facebook page at:

https://www.facebook.com/tantaquidgeonmuseum

The Mohegan Tribe website also has information about the museum, including information on several of the important artifacts on display. It can be found at:

https://www.mohegan.nsn.us/

Information on the artifacts described in this column can be found at:

https://www.mohegan.nsn.us/explore/heritage/artifacts

To learn the history of the Mohegan tribe’s 400 years of resilience and survival, and their continued dedication to preserving their traditions and language, is to gain a higher perspective and greater appreciation for this region of Southern New England.

We live in a beautiful place that today is called The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor. For thousands of years people have lived among these hills, valleys, fields, rivers, lakes and streams. I hope you’ll join me as we care for the stories of the past, enjoy the richness of our heritage, and pass on these traditions and stories to the next generation.

Information for this column was gleaned from my visit to the Tantaquidgeon Museum, “Medicine Trail: The Life and Lessons of Gladys Tantaquidgeon,” by Melissa Jayne Fawcett, the Tantaquidgeon Museum Facebook page, and the Mohegan Tribe website.

Bill Reid is the Chief Ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor. He can be reached at 860-774-3300 or bill@tlgv.org

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