Exploring The Last Green Valley – Gladys Tantaquidgeon: A Mohegan Woman Born to Follow the Sun

Exploring The Last Green Valley – Gladys Tantaquidgeon: A Mohegan Woman Born to Follow the Sun

Exploring The Last Green Valley – Gladys Tantaquidgeon: A Mohegan Woman Born to Follow the Sun

In celebration of Women’s History Month, my March columns have focused on memorable women who lived in The Last Green Valley. There are many women from our region who had a positive impact on the lives of others – more than this column can possibly highlight. Today we travel to Uncasville to learn about the life of Gladys Tantaquidgeon.

The last sentence in the Mohegan Tribe Vision Statement is “Our circular trail returns us to wholeness as a people.” Gladys Tantaquidgeon taught her people that “we also call this trail the Path of the Sun, for it follows life’s circle from birth and sunrise (in the east) to death and passage into the spirit world (in the west) – then on again to rebirth and the dawn of the next generation.” Medicine Trail: The Life and Lessons of Gladys Tantaquidgeon, by Melissa Tantaquidgeon Zobel.

Gladys Tantaquidgeon was born on June 15, 1899, in the east on Mohegan Hill in Uncasville. As an adult she studied, worked and spent part of her career in the western states of the country. Years later she would retrace her route back east again, to Mohegan Hill where she would live to the age of 106. During a remarkable life that spanned three centuries, she helped to bring about the rebirth of the Mohegan Tribe.

Gladys was a direct descendant of the first Sachem, Uncas, of the Mohegan Tribe. As a young girl Gladys was trained in Mohegan traditional tribal ways by her great aunt, Medicine Woman Emma Fielding Baker, and her grandmothers Lydia Fielding and Mercy Ann Nonesuch Mathews.  Together these three “nanus,” or respected elder women, trained her in spirituality, herbal lore, and traditional artistic techniques such as beading, quilting and sewing.

As a young girl she met noted anthropological ethnographer Dr. Frank Speck who had traveled to Mohegan Hill to record and transcribe Mohegan stories and language. Speck saw the promise that Gladys portrayed, especially in her training by her three “nanus” and he took a special interest in her.

In 1919, at the age of 20 years old, Gladys left Mohegan Hill and traveled to the University of Pennsylvania where she would serve as assistant to Frank Speck. Through Speck she was introduced to other tribes and sovereign nations and she came to represent her own tribe in her travels and studies.

Many Native American people lost traditional lands, materials, and cultures as a result of tribal relocations, Native American children being forced to attend boarding schools, and the gradual cultural assimilation and economic marginalization of the tribes. The work undertaken by Speck, Gladys and their colleagues was critical to preserving the ethnological material of Indigenous people in this country.

In 1934 Congress passed the Indian Reorganization Act that would return self-government to Native Americans. There was a need for people of native descent to work on western reservations slated for reorganization and Gladys’ experience and educational background made her an excellent choice for a position.

She was recruited by the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, John Collier, to serve as a community worker on the Yankton Sioux Reservation in South Dakota and so her travels took her west with the sun. Her years working with the Sioux were very challenging, but she gained the respect and acceptance of the Sioux and gained connections and understanding of Native American people outside Mohegan and other tribes of the eastern woodlands.

After four years it was time to move on, and in 1938, Gladys accepted a position with the Federal Indian Arts and Crafts Board where she would work for almost 10 years. The Federal Indian Arts and Crafts Board was an agency of the U.S Department of Interior that was created in 1935 to promote the economic development of American Indians and Alaska Natives through the expansion of Indian arts and crafts.

Her new position was to promote Indian art as a specialist in the Dakotas, Montana and Wyoming. She helped organize Indian cooperatives and to conduct research and preservation of ancient Indian artistic techniques. Part of this Indian art revival included the return of ancient ceremonials, for which certain artistic and ceremonial objects were required. The Sundance and the Rain Dance had been previously prohibited by the federal government and in her work she encouraged the restoration of these and other prohibited ancient practices.

After being away from Mohegan Hill for 28 years, with only occasional visits, Gladys eventually returned home.  She began her final journey to help bring about the rebirth of the Mohegan tribe as well as to assume the role for which she had been trained by her great aunt and grandmothers, to be the tribal Medicine woman and “nanus” of the next generation of Mohegan children.

In 1947 Gladys returned to Uncasville, and along with her father John and brother Harold, worked as the curator of the Tantaquidgeon Indian Museum. She had co-founded the museum in 1931 – the oldest Native American owned and operated museum in the country.

The museum houses Native American artifacts and is dedicated to education, based on Harold Tantaquidgeon’s belief that “you can’t hate someone you know a lot about.” Gladys continued to work at the museum until 1998, and further served the Mohegans on their Tribal Council in the 1980’s.

To visit the Tantaquidgeon Museum is to understand Gladys, her brother Harold and father John, as well as the Mohegan community. The museum is undergoing renovations at this time but hopefully will be ready for the museum’s traditional opening day on May 1st. Opening day may need to be pushed back to June 1st, so you’ll want to check their website and Facebook page for up-to-date information on opening day and the museum’s calendar of programs.

There is so much more to write about Gladys Tantaquidgeon than space in this column permits, including her work as Librarian at the state women’s prison in Niantic and of course her critical role in the Mohegan Tribe gaining Federal Recognition in 1994.

To learn more about Gladys Tantaquidgeon, I urge you to read Medicine Trail: The Life and Lessons of Gladys Tantaquidgeon, written by her grandniece Melissa Tantaquidgeon Zobel. I spoke with Melissa to learn more about Gladys and her brother Harold.

Like the three grandmothers who helped teach Gladys about the Mohegan Tribe’s traditional customs, so too did Gladys train Melissa. The longevity of the three grandmothers, combined with Gladys’ own longevity, helped to maintain the customs and traditions of the Mohegan Tribe going all the way back to Sachem Uncas. The circle trail of life continues through the Medicine Women and to the young members of the tribe today and into the future.

Melissa described Gladys as a person with “positive energy and good nature” with an “unwavering positive manner.” Her greatest gift to the community was her “transcendent wisdom, her certainty in her understanding of the universe. She was comfortable in her beliefs, not just about Mohegan, but of all people.”

Gladys passed away peacefully on March 7, 2005. One of the last things she said to Melissa was “Let us all stand in love for the tribe.”

We are lucky to live in The Last Green Valley. Together we enjoy the stories of those who went before, together we care for the lessons they impart to us, and together let us pass on to the next generation their gifts.

Information on Gladys Tantaquidgeon was taken directly from Medicine Trail: The Life and Lessons of Gladys Tantaquidgeon by Melissa Tantaquidgeon Zobel; from conversations with Melissa Tantaquidgeon Zobel, Medicine Woman and Mohegan Tribal Historian; from the Mohegan Tribe Gladys Tantaquidgeon Memorial found on the Mohegan Tribal website http://www.mohegan.nsn.us/heritage/medicine-woman-gladys-tantaquidgeon-memorial; and from the Gladys Tantaquidgeon entry on the website for the CT Women’s Hall of Fame, http://www.cwhf.org/inductees/education-preservation/gladys-tantaquidgeon#.VucPrrHD8dU.

Bill Reid is the Chief Ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor and has lived in the region for more than 30 years. He can be reached at bill@tlgv.org

(The Norwich Bulletin is granted first serial rights and associated electronic rights to publish the following article.  The Last Green Valley, Inc. retains all other rights to the work.)



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