Wednesday, October 3, 2007

The Great Mohegan Patriot

By Ken Davison

Mohegan Chief G’tinemon died on October 1st in New London, Connecticut at the age of 88. Chief Ralph Sturges was the great grandson of the legendary Mohegan Medicine Woman Emma Baker.

I saw Chief Ralph Sturges at his home last month with my cousin Bill. We were greeted with the sight of a smartly-dressed Chief leaning forward in an armchair while reading the business section of The Day newspaper. He had only recently returned from the hospital but he spoke spiritedly. He was enthusiastic about a ceremony to be held later that day in which the head of the National Indian Gaming Association, Ernie Stevens, was to honor him.

The Chief helped guide the Tribe through its Federal recognition in 1994 and to the selection of a top-notch partner that built and managed the original Mohegan Sun casino. The Chief was jovial and witty and a man of integrity. He won over the outside community to support the Tribe’s endeavors at a time when the public was becoming increasingly nervous about having another Indian casino in the region.

When he stepped down from his duties as chairman of the tribal council for health reasons, the Tribe lost a prudent tribal council chairman who had espoused transparency in government and the need for the Tribe to pay off its debt. The Chief was privately critical of many decisions made by subsequent tribal councils, including the terms of the buyout agreement with Trading Cove, the Sunburst expansion and the Pocono Downs acquisition. Chief Sturges was upset that Roland Harris, who replaced him as chairman of the tribal council, was given only a reprimand after the internal corruption investigation of 2001. Shortly after the Chief’s departure from the tribal council, tribal membership meetings were changed from monthly to quarterly and tribal council meetings were closed off to tribal members (council meetings are now open to tribal members although members are barred from making comments or asking questions).

Ralph nonetheless remained the Tribe’s Lifetime Chief and continued to work daily to keep the outside community on our side. He was accessible to anyone on any day of the work week while he was at his office on the reservation or eating lunch at the Chief’s Deli or, in later years, the Uncas American Indian Grill in the casino. He loved the public and the public had a tremendous amount of respect for him.

But on that sunny September morning, he was not the Chief to me. He was a friend that I knew was going through a difficult time. I did not know the seriousness of his illness and he complained little of his condition. He spoke more fervently when the topics were about the Tribe. Chief Sturges told Bill and me to get the word out to tribal members about the honoring ceremony later that afternoon. He spoke of returning to his daily routine on the reservation. The Tribe was clearly still at the forefront of his thoughts. He talked again of tribal politics. He still sounded like the Patriarch.

Chief Sturges will forever be remembered by the people of the Mohegan Nation for the milestones we reached under his leadership. I will always remember him as the great patriot of our nation.