Gladys Tantaquidgeon ~ Mohegan

Published on June 4, 2014 by Amy

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Gladys Tantaquidgeon
Gladys Tantaquidgeon

Dr. Gladys Iola Tantaquidgeon (June 15, 1899 – November 1, 2005) (Mohegan) was a Tribal Medicine Woman, anthropologist, author, tribal council member, and elder. She worked with the Bureau of Indian Affairs for more than a decade beginning in 1934. She published several books about Native American traditional medicine and healing with plants. 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). She was a 10th-generation descendant of the Mohegan chief Uncas, who was prominent in the colonial era. The Mohegan were among tribes who spoke one of the many Algonquian languages.

In childhood, Gladys learned traditional practices, beliefs, and lore from nanus, respected elder women. By age five, the tribal nanus had chosen her to be schooled in the traditions that comprise Mohegan culture. One of her mentors was the Mohegan traditionalist Fidelia Fielding (1827 to 1908). From Fielding, she learned the ways of the makiawisug (the sacred woodland little people), who guard the healing plants.

Another mentor was her maternal aunt, Nanu Emma Fielding Baker (1828-1916), who was posthumously elected in 1992 as the Mohegan Tribal Medicine Woman and was inducted into the Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame for her work in education and preservation. Gladys started studying with her aunt in 1904, specializing in traditional herbal medicine. In her youth, Gladys had only occasional non-Indian education and never attended high school.

In 1919, at the age of 20, Tantaquidgeon attended the University of Pennsylvania to study anthropology. The scholar Frank Speck had met her as a child while he worked with her nanu Fidelia Fielding. When she was old enough, he invited her to study with him at Penn; he arranged work for her support, housing with foreign students, and classes and fieldwork to broaden her understanding of Native American cultures. She later did field work related to the Lenape and other eastern Algonquian tribes. She expanded her knowledge of traditional pharmacopeia by researching herbal medicine practices among many related East Coast tribes.

From 1934–1947, at the time of the Indian Reorganization Act and the Indian New Deal under the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Tantaquidgeon started work with the US Bureau of Indian Affairs. She was hired in 1934 under the Wheeler-Howard Act to administer social service benefits for Indians, and was first assigned to the Yankton Sioux Indian Reservation in South Dakota. 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 the Mohegan Tribal Historian Melissa Fawcett, while working for the federal Indian Arts and Crafts Board, Tantaquidgeon also helped preserve customs that had been prohibited 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 traditional practices.

In 1931 Tantaquidgeon had worked with her brother Harry, a former chief, and father John to set up the Tantaquidgeon Indian Museum. It is the oldest one owned and operated by Native Americans. After concluding her government service in 1947, Tantaquidgeon returned to Mohegan Hill, Uncasville. She worked full-time at the museum for the next fifty years, until 1998.

As a librarian in the Niantic Women’s Prison in the late 1940s, she had helped minority women. During the 1970s and 80s, Tantaquidgeon also served on the Mohegan Tribal Council, encouraging the preservation and revival of tribal customs and language.

She published several books in her lifetime about traditional herbal medicine. “Her best-known work, A Study of Delaware Indian Medicine Practices and Folk Beliefs (1942), was 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 of the Mohegan.

Tantaquidgeon preserved numerous records and tribal correspondence in boxes under her bed. These proved critical in aiding the tribe’s case for federal recognition. As a people without a reservation, they had to prove community continuity. They gained federal recognition in 1994. Dr. Gladys Tantaquidgeon was the great aunt of author and current Mohegan Medicine Woman Melissa Tantaquidgeon Zobel.

Legacy, awards and honors

During her lifetime, Gladys Tantaquidgeon received many awards and honors, including:

  • As an “outstanding role model”, Tantaquidgeon was awarded the ‘Tiffany Jewel’ by the University of Connecticut.
  • Connecticut Education Association’s Friend of Education Award
  • For “consistent endeavor in the area of social justice”, she received the National Organization for Women’s Harriet Tubman Award in 1996.
  • She received honorary doctorates from the University of Connecticut (Doctor of Humane Letters degree, 1987) and Yale University (1994).
  • 1994, she was inducted into the Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame.
  • Her 100th birthday, June 15, 1999, was declared as ‘Gladys Tantaquidgeon Day’ by Gov. John G. Rowland of Connecticut; and was marked in the U.S. Congress by Hon. Sam Gejdenson.
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