Medicine Woman Gladys Tantaquidgeon
Display about Gladys Tantaquidgeon. Courtesy of the Tantaquidgeon Museum
“Listen and never forget.” This is what the female elders of the Mohegan tribe said to Gladys Tantaquidgeon. She was 5 years old. The women, called “nanus,” had chosen her to be their future medicine woman.
Gladys was born on June 15, 1899. She was born near Montville which is also known as Uncasville. Montville is in southeastern Connecticut near Norwich. Her family lived on Mohegan Hill. They lived near the Mohegan church.
Mohegan Church, Uncasville. Connecticut State Library
Gladys was descended from the great sachem Uncas. Uncas founded the Mohegan tribe 250 years before she was born. Her parents were Harriet and John Tantaquidgeon. She was their third child. She had six brothers and sisters. She grew up following the traditional Mohegan ways.
Gladys went to school nearby. She also learned from her nanus. She learned about the natural world. She learned about plants that could be used as medicine. She learned Mohegan customs. Her nanus included medicine woman Emma Fielding Baker. “Nanu” Baker was her great aunt.
When Gladys was 8 years old, her parents moved the family to New London. She went to public school there. When she was 15, the family returned to Mohegan Hill. Gladys did not go to high school but she went to college.
As a child, Gladys got to know the Speck family. Dr. Frank Speck was a professor. He taught at the University of Pennsylvania. He taught anthropology. Anthropology is the study of human societies and cultures. Dr. Speck recorded Gladys’s great aunt Fidelia Fielding telling stories in the Mohegan language. Fielding was the last person who spoke the language. Dr. Speck wanted to record the language before it was lost.
Displays in the Tantaquidgeon Museum. Courtesy of the Tantaquidgeon Museum
During summer vacations Gladys visited the Speck family. She met people from other New England tribes. She met people from the Penobscot and Micmac tribes who lived in Maine.
When Gladys was 20 she became a student of Dr. Speck’s at the University of Pennsylvania. She did research among other Indian tribes. She published a book about her research. Her book recorded the tribes’ medicinal practices and folk beliefs. Some of those practices were similar to Mohegan ways.
Gladys Tantaquidgeon (right) and her brother Harold Tantaquidgeon in the museum they founded about the Mohegan people of Connecticut. Courtesy of the Tantaquidgeon Museum
In 1934 Gladys got a job with the U.S. government. Her job was with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. She lived with the Lakota Sioux tribe in South Dakota. She helped start a new school there.
Next she worked with the Indian Arts and Crafts Board. She helped Native Americans learn traditional tribal arts and crafts. She helped different tribes restart their traditional ceremonies. The U.S. government had outlawed these ceremonies. Now it was okay to practice them again.
In 1947 Gladys returned to Mohegan Hill. Her nanus had died. It was time for her to be the Mohegan medicine woman. She was ready to help her people continue their traditional ways. She was ready to help keep the Mohegan culture strong.
Many years later on her 100th birthday, Gladys was recognized for her accomplishments. She had become an expert in Native American ways. She had promoted respect for all Indian nations.
The Tantaquidgeon Museum
In 1931 Gladys, Harold, and their father founded the Tantaquidgeon Museum in Uncasville. They collected and displayed things important to the Mohegan people. One object was a wampum belt or collar. It had been in the Tantaquidgeon family for many generations.
Tantaquidgeon Museum, Uncasville.
Gladys educated school groups at the museum. She talked to visitors from near and far. She met with researchers. She wrote down the history of the Mohegans. She kept historical documents safe. She kept up-to-date records of tribal births, deaths, marriages, and land sales. These records helped the Mohegan Tribe win recognition as a sovereign nation by the U.S. government in 1994.
In 1995 and 1996 the tribe bought former tribal lands. The land was added to the Mohegan Reservation. The Mohegans launched a new venture. In 1996 the tribe opened the Mohegan Sun Casino. The casino was a success. It has contributed to ongoing prosperity for the tribe.
In 1987 the University of Connecticut recognized Gladys’s achievements. They awarded her an honorary degree. Yale University gave her an honorary degree, too. In 1994 she was inducted into the Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame.
Gladys Tantaquidgeon died in 2005 at age 106. She had spent a lifetime helping her tribe “walk as a single spirit on the Trail of Life.”
Uncas as imagined by artist David Wagner. Used by permission
Learn more about Uncas and the Mohegan Tribe HERE.
Visit the Tantaquideon Museum, 1819 Norwich New London Turnpike, Uncasville.
Many thanks to Martha Londregan upon whose essay for the West Hartford Public Schools this is based, Faith Damon Davison, and the Tantaquidgeon Museum.
Melissa Jayne Fawcett, Medicine Trail: The Life and Lessons of Gladys Tantaquidgeon (University of Arizona Press, 2000)
Gladys Tantaquidgeon, Folk Medicine of the Delaware and Related Algonkian Indians (Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1977)
Gladys Tantaquidgeon Biography, Mohegan Tribe website, https://mohegan.nsn.us/explore/heritage/memoriam/medicine-woman-gladys-tantaquidgeon-memorial
“Uncasville: Tantaquidgeon Museum” by Anita Fowler, Connecticut Explored, Summer 2016. https://ctexplored.org/uncasville-tantaquidgeon-museum/