Published on November 29, 2012 by Amy
Dr. Gladys Iola Tantaquidgeon (June 15, 1899 – November 1, 2005) was a Mohegan Medicine Woman, anthropologist, author, council member, and elder. In 1994 she was inducted into the Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame.
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Gladys Tantaquidgeon, (name meaning “fast runner”), was the third of seven children born to Mohegan parents, John and Harriet Fielding Tantaquidgeon, on Mohegan Hill in Quinnetucket (Uncasville, in New London County, CT). In childhood, she learned traditional practices, beliefs, and lore from Nanus or respected elder women. One of her mentors was the Mohegan traditionalist Fidelia Fielding (1827 to 1908). Another was her maternal aunt, Emma Fielding Baker, who was posthumously elected in 1992 as the Tribal Medicine Woman. From Fielding, she learned the ways of the makiawisug (the sacred woodland little people who guard healing plants).
In her youth, Gladys had only infrequent Western education. By age five, the tribal Nanus had chosen her to be schooled in the traditions that comprise Mohegan culture. In 1904, she began training with her aunt, Nanu Emma Baker, specializing in traditional herbal medicine. In 1919, at the age of 18, she attended the University of Pennsylvania to study anthropology and worked with Frank Speck. She later did field work concerning the Lenape and other eastern tribes. She expanded her knowledge of traditional pharmacopeia by researching herbal medicine among many related east coast tribes.
Tantaquidgeon worked with the Bureau of Indian Affairs from 1934–1947, first on the Yankton Sioux Indian Reservation in Dakota. She was hired in 1934 under the Wheeler-Howard Act to administer new educational privileges for Indians of the northeast. In 1938 Gladys transferred to the Indian Arts and Crafts Board to serve as a “Native Arts Specialist”. Working in the Dakotas, Montana and Wyoming, she helped artisans preserve traditional skills and arts, and helped them form cooperatives and other institutions for the sale and management of their arts. She developed ways for tribes to revive their cultural practices. According to Mohegan Tribal Historian Melissa Fawcett, while working for the federal Indian Arts and Crafts Board, Tantaquidgeon helped preserve customs that had been outlawed in the 19th century, such as the Ghost Dance and the Sun Dance. Part of Tantaquidgeon’s job was to encourage the restoration of these and other previously prohibited ancient practices.
In 1931 Tantaquidgeon worked with her brother Harry, a former chief, to set up the Tantaquidgeon Indian Museum, said to be the oldest owned and operated by Native Americans. After concluding her government service in 1947, she returned to Mohegan Hill, Uncasville, and worked full-time at the museum until 1998.
During the 1970s and 80s, Tantaquidgeon served on the Mohegan Tribal Council, working to preserve and revive tribal customs and language. She published several books about traditional herbal medicine. “Her best-known work, A Study of Delaware Indian Medicine Practices and Folk Beliefs, was published in 1942 and reprinted in 1972 and 1995 as Folk Medicine of the Delaware and Related Algonkian Indians.” In 1992 she was elected as the Tribal Medicine Woman.
As a librarian in the Niantic Women’s Prison in the 1940s, she helped minority women. She also kept birth, graduation, marriage and death records of the Mohegan people, which proved vital to proving the tribe’s case for federal recognition in 1994.