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G. Tantaquidgeon, 106, Tribal Elder Helped Preserve Mohegan Traditions

November 02, 2005|Myrna Oliver | Times Staff Writer

Gladys Tantaquidgeon, who was, if not "the last of the Mohicans," at least the most revered elder of the Mohegan Indian tribe and its oldest living member, died Tuesday. She was 106.

Tantaquidgeon, a medicine woman who wrote several books on Native American medical practices and folklore, died at her home in the Uncasville section of Montville, Conn. The town was formed from the tribe's former eight-acre reservation.

She had devoted much of her life to keeping alive her tribe's ancient culture, and documents and material she collected helped the Mohegans regain official tribal status from the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1994.

Tantaquidgeon once dismissed James Fenimore Cooper's 1826 tale of the French and Indian War, which she said she never read, as "historical fiction, of course." Cooper's novel ended with the death of the Mohicans' young chief Uncas and, because he left no heirs, signified the end of the tribe. (Cooper used the Dutch spelling of the tribe's name, "Mohican," but the English spelling of "Mohegan" has won greater acceptance, despite the 1992 film starring Daniel Day-Lewis that repopularized the novel.)

"Contrary to James Fenimore Cooper's famous book," Tantaquidgeon told The Times in 1990, "my tribe, obviously, did not die out."

Then she added with a sigh, "I let the cause down. I never married, never had any children."

The tribe is small, with about 1,600 members this year, up 700 from those recognized when the tribe regained federal recognition 11 years ago.

The Tantaquidgeons -- whose name means "going fast" -- traced their ancestry to Uncas who, unlike Cooper's fictional counterpart, lived into his 80s and left many offspring.

It was Chief Uncas who established the tribe separately from the Pequots in the 1600s, and for which the section of Montville is named.

Gladys Iola Tantaquidgeon, born June 15, 1899, was a 10th generation descendant. Many of her male relatives, including her brother Harold who died in 1989, served as tribal chiefs.

In 1931, her family founded the Tantaquidgeon Indian Museum near her home, and she ran it from 1947 until 1997, when her health began to decline. During those years, she welcomed thousands of schoolchildren and others to learn about ancient lifestyles by examining the museum's baskets, bowls, beadwork, jewelry, dolls, clothing and other artifacts.

"Most people who come here are amazed that Mohegans are still alive," she told The Times. "All their lives they've heard the old saying about the last of the Mohegans."

More recently, she gave her imprimatur to the tribe's Mohegan Sun casino, which opened in 1996 in Uncasville, for its emphasis on tribal culture.

Although she referred to it as "that gambling joint," she was pleased by the prosperity its 12 million annual visitors brought to her people.

The casino features a life-size statue of the 4-foot-11 medicine woman, which was draped in black Tuesday after her death. A mural traces a timeline of her life.

" 'Mohegan' means 'wolf' in our language," Tantaquidgeon told Associated Press in 1992.

"We belong to the Algonkian language family, that great group of woodlands Indians which extended from eastern Canada southward down the coast to where the Cherokees begin."

Only the third medicine woman of her tribe since 1859, Tantaquidgeon learned her herbal cures and other lore from two great-aunts and her maternal grandmother. From her mother, Harriet, she learned beading, sewing and quilting and such things as trimming her hair only during the waning moon to ensure luster. Her father, John, taught her basket-weaving.

Tantaquidgeon studied anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania and wrote a 1942 book on Delaware Indian medicine practices and folk beliefs that was reprinted in 1972 and 1995 as "Folk Medicine of the Delaware and Related Algonkian Indians."

She learned tribal stories -- including respect for the Makiawisug or woodland "Little People" -- from a great aunt, Fidelia Fielding, who died in 1908 and was believed to be the last person to speak the Mohegan language.

Because the tribe had no written language, Tantaquidgeon collected stories from Fielding and others and wrote them in English. It was a lifelong dream of hers to revive the Mohegan language.

Tantaquidgeon earned respect far beyond her own small tribe. She spent time with the Lenni Lenape tribe in Delaware; the Nanticokes in Virginia; Cayugas in Ontario, Canada; and Naskapis in Quebec.

During the Depression, she served as a community worker on the Yankton Sioux Indian Reservation in South Dakota and worked to promote Native American art for the Federal Indian Arts and Crafts Board in the Dakotas, Montana and Wyoming.

Tantaquidgeon served as the librarian at the state women's prison in Niantic, Conn., teaching Native American crafts and applying her experience in working with reservation families to those in difficult circumstances.

Her life was featured in the 2000 book by her great-niece, Melissa Tantaquidgeon Zobel, "Medicine Trail: The Life and Lessons of Gladys Tantaquidgeon."

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