Saturday, August 23, 2008

Tribes In The Media: Mohegan-Pequot Indian Sites and Centers

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This installment of the Tribes In The Media series, is a Hartford Courant article that is expected to appear in tomorrow's edition and which covers the Tantaquidgeon Museum, a Mashantucket Pequot project that is investigating significant sites related to the 1637 Pequot War and some information on Mystic's Indian and Colonial Research Center. Mohegan tribal members Jason LaVigne and Garrett Kirwan are quoted in the article.

Indian Sites Struggle In Shadow Of Casinos
By Beth Dufresne
Hartford Courant
August 24, 2008

When an expansion at Mohegan Sun forced the relocation of a life-size statue of the late Gladys Tantaquidgeon, members of the Mohegan tribe couldn't agree on another site for their beloved medicine woman.

Ultimately, they decided to bring her home. Home is an intimate, four-room fieldstone museum at 1819 Norwich-New London Turnpike in the Uncasville section of Montville, a short walk from Tantaquidgeon's modest lifelong home and a world away from the Sun casino complex.

In the era that might be called B.C., Before Casinos, there was a modest handful of American Indian sites and institutions in southeastern Connecticut. They survive in the shadows of the giant Indian gaming complexes, but most do not thrive.

In the small museum, the statue of the diminutive Tantaquidgeon, who died in 2005 at age 106, stands near a portrait of Uncas, the 17th-century Mohegan sachem from whom she is descended. Her brother, the late Chief Harold Tantaquidgeon, painted the portrait. Family photographs hang over countless mementos of Gladys' travels throughout Indian Country during the 1930s and '40s.

"I think she's probably happier here," said tribal member Jason LaVigne, who oversees the place. Tens of thousands of people visit Mohegan Sun daily. Yet just 140, excluding school trips, passed through here from May through July. Some, particularly the Europeans, come seeking an "authentic" Indian site, LaVigne said. But most are local people who came here as children, often with Scout troops, and now want to relive the experience with their own kids.

They're happy to find that you can still touch a real bearskin, and that the stuffed eagle that entranced them as kids, which looks pretty scrappy, is still here. "I keep it out," LaVigne said, "because the kids love it."

Gladys and Harold, with their father, John Tantaquidgeon, founded the museum in 1931, and for decades it was arguably the public's main window onto southeastern Connecticut's Indian tribes. One of the oldest Indian-run museums in the nation, it was rededicated this year with much fanfare but few changes save air conditioning and some sprucing up.

Across the street, residents of a trailer park for tribal members said they often encounter people searching for "real" Indians, having failed to find — or at least recognize — any at the casinos.

Garrett Kirwan, also descended from Uncas, said if you want to talk to an Indian, the last place to look is Foxwoods, owned by the Mashantucket Pequots, or the Sun. He is happy to talk, and to debunk stereotypes such as that all "casino Indians" are rich. That's true only of the leaders, he said.

Kirwan, his doorway distinguished by a large Indian head in non-Mohegan headdress, is also glad to point visitors to other Mohegan sites, such as Fort Shantok and Cochegan Rock, where Uncas met with his council.

The overpowering presence of Foxwoods and the Sun seems, for some at least, to make pre-casino artifacts and sites more authentic and precious.

Perhaps the best place to get a sense of that long, tough span between conquest and casinos is the North Stonington reservation of the Eastern Pequot tribe, which won federal recognition after the Mashantuckets and Mohegans, but saw it withdrawn in 2005. Largely undeveloped, the Eastern reservation is home to a few tribal members and one fledgling business, the We-Tu Bait and Tackle Shop.

Nearby is Lantern Hill, from which Pequot sachems once surveyed their domain. The peak, popular with hikers, offers a spectacular view of a part of the new Indian world, the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center, built in 1998 for $135 million.

The Mashantucket museum recently got a $22,000 grant from the National Park Service American Battlefield Protection Program to begin documenting areas crucial to the 1637 Pequot War. Ironically, the project highlights the precarious financial state of another pre-casino landmark, the Indian and Colonial Research Center of the Old Mystic section of Stonington.

Housed in a little 19th-century brick bank building, the center was founded in 1965 to preserve the eclectic collections of Eva Butler (1897-1969), a local historian who amassed an astonishing trove of public records, artifacts and photographs spanning several centuries.

David Naumec, a research consultant who was there in July working on the Pequot battlefield project, said the Mashantucket research center has "pretty good archives. But this is better."

The Old Mystic center was a veritable hot spot for those anxious to prove tribal lineage in the 1980s and '90s. Many used its archives to help win tribal membership at a time when everyone, it seemed, suddenly wanted to be Indian.

Today, however, with dwindling funds and volunteers, the center itself needs outside help. Joan Cohn, its director, said that since 2000 the Mohegans have contributed $30,000 to the center, and the Mashantuckets $500. She said either tribe would take Butler's collection in a pinch, but wouldn't promise to keep the original items available to the public. Many of the center's records are now online, but that's not good enough.

So it soldiers on, ignored by the slots players and rock fans who only know the new Indian institutions in the region.