Gladys Tantaquidgeon, the Mohegan Indian Tribe’s venerable medicine woman and a nationally known expert on ancient Indian practices, died Tuesday morning. She was 106.
The tribe’s oldest living member, Tantaquidgeon died peacefully at the Uncasville home where she had lived all her life, said her grandniece, Melissa Tantaquidgeon Zobel.
Born in 1899, Tantaquidgeon was one of seven children of John and Harriet Fielding Tantaquidgeon, both Mohegans. She was a 10th generation descendant of Uncas, the famed Mohegan chief.
During her lifetime, she watched her tribe grow from a handful of Mohegan families in Uncasville who struggled to keep their tribal heritage alive to a federally recognized tribe that owns and operates one of the most successful casinos in the world.
Tantaquidgeon is given much credit for the Mohegans receiving federal recognition. For years, she collected a large number of documents, including tribal correspondence, birth, death and marriage records, many of which she stored under her bed. That information helped to document the continuity of the tribe, which managed to survive even after its reservation was disbanded.
“A lot of the generations before us knew if they hung on long enough, a lot of things would turn around one day,” Zobel said. “Her dream was that the culture would be preserved for the Mohegan Tribe. The fact that the tribe survived was all she ever really cared about.”
A life-size statue of Tantaquidgeon that greets visitors entering the Mohegan Sun casino was draped in black on Tuesday. There is a wall mural depicting a timeline of her life nearby.
Zobel said the approximately 1,700-member tribe is trying to see her great aunt’s death as something to celebrate.
“We truly feel her contribution and longevity require us to consider that her life isn’t simply one to be mourned,” she said. “Her life is really something to celebrate at this time.”
Tantaquidgeon wrote several books on Indian medicine practices and folk lore. Her best-known work, “A Study of Delaware Indian Medicine Practices and Folk Beliefs,” was published in 1942 and later reprinted in 1972 and 1995 as “Folk Medicine of the Delaware and Related Algonkian Indians.”
She became versed in the ways of the tribe’s spirituality and use of herbs from her grandmothers. Tantaquidgeon went on to study anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania.
Tantaquidgeon earned several awards, including honorary doctorates from Yale and the University of Connecticut.
Her work became known nationwide and she was called on by many western tribes to assist in the restoration of their ancient practices. In 1934, she served as a community worker on the Yankton Sioux reservation in South Dakota and also worked to promote Indian art for the Federal Indian Arts and Crafts Board in the Dakotas, Montana and Wyoming.
In 1940, she served as the librarian at the state women’s prison in Niantic, where she felt her work with families on reservations sensitized her to the needs of women in difficult situations.
In 1931, she founded the Tantaquidgeon Indian Museum in Uncasville, along with her late brother Harold, the tribe’s former chief. Tribal officials say it’s one of the oldest Indian-owned and -operated museums in the country and emphasizes the siblings’ philosophy that “you can’t hate someone that you know a lot about.”
Tantaquidgeon, who never married, continued to work full-time at the museum until 1998.
Her passing was noted Tuesday by Connecticut Gov. M. Jodi Rell, who said Tantaquidgeon had left “an extraordinary legacy,” and by a top leader of the neighboring Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation.
Kenneth M. Reels, the Pequots’ vice chairman, said his tribe was deeply saddened by Tantaquidgeon’s death. He referred to her as both a regional and national advocate for American Indian rights, history and culture.
“She instilled her beliefs, values, principles and oral history through her immediate family and extended tribal members. Ms. Tantaquidgeon firmly believe d that the best cure for prejudice was education,” he said. “Her beliefs resonated throughout the country and throughout Indian country.”
Rell said, “Tantaquidgeon shared 106 years with Connecticut and its people and all of us are richer for it.”
The Mohegan Tribal offices will be closed Wednesday to mark an official day of mourning. A funeral service is tentatively scheduled for Sunday at Shantok Village of Uncas in Uncasville, where a tribal burial ground is located, Zobel said.
© MMV Infinity Broadcasting Corp.